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Top general in Afghanistan asks Pentagon for more troops

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request will not be submitted to the White House for 10 days. Obama officials have asked the military to devise options for pursuing other strategies.

September 26, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Mark Magnier

WASHINGTON AND KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The top general in Afghanistan submitted a request for additional troops to his Pentagon bosses Friday, defense officials said, a recommendation that will be evaluated by a White House that appears to be increasingly skittish about sending reinforcements into the war.

It is unclear how many troops Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal requested. Officials have estimated that he needs 20,000 to 40,000 additional combat troops to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency strategy.

McChrystal's request will be reviewed by Pentagon officials and is not likely to be submitted to the White House for at least 10 days, according to a Defense official. The Pentagon also says the White House has asked military officials to submit a list of options for pursuing different strategies.

McChrystal's opinion was offered on a day when five more American troops were reported killed in southern Afghanistan, adding to the security and political concerns in the troubled nation.

McChrystal huddled in Germany with Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command. Both have been strong supporters of McChrystal's assessment that a vigorous campaign to beat back Taliban inroads, stabilize Afghanistan and help the government maintain security will require more combat troops.

But at a news conference in Pittsburgh, President Obama reiterated that he is reviewing the basic strategy, to ensure that the war effort is focused on his goal of preventing a return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan. He acknowledged the declining support for the war and said he expected the public to ask "tough questions."

"We're not going to arrive at perfect answers," Obama said. "But my solemn obligation is to make sure that I get the best answers possible, particularly before I make decisions about sending additional troops into the theater."

Some in the White House, reportedly including Vice President Joe Biden, have advocated a narrower counterinsurgency mission. Recasting the war in that way probably would require far fewer troops.

Others have advocated a strategy focused less on protecting the population or building up the government than on training Afghan security forces. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been the strongest advocate of a training first approach.

McChrystal has said the best way to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent the terrorist organization from returning to Afghanistan is to mount a widespread counterinsurgency campaign focused on protecting the Afghan people.

Defense analysts and military officials close to McChrystal argue that more limited strategies are more likely to result in failure, potentially leading to the collapse of the Afghan government and instability in neighboring Pakistan.

"Folks would argue that strategy got us where we are today and what we need now is a more aggressive counterinsurgency strategy," a Defense official said.

Kimberly and Fred Kagan, defense analysts who helped McChrystal prepare his assessment of the war, this week released a report calling for about 40,000 extra troops to help wage a broad counterinsurgency campaign.

There are about 64,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but only about 23,200 are conducting counterinsurgency missions, the report says. At the height of the U.S. military buildup in Iraq, 105,000 troops were directly involved in counterinsurgency operations there.

Taliban and other insurgents have stepped up attacks on U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan this year, analysts say, both to disrupt the elections, which were held Aug. 20, and to sway public opinion in the West as many are questioning their nations' involvement in the 8-year-old year war and growing uneasy about the climbing casualties.

British Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sam Truelove, a spokeswoman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Friday that two Americans were killed in a roadside bombing late Thursday and a third died later of his wounds. The soldiers were in a Stryker vehicle, the Associated Press reported.

Lightly armed Stryker vehicles have been deployed in Afghanistan in a bid to cover more territory, respond faster and expand NATO's presence. However, they are more vulnerable to roadside bombs, increasingly the weapon of choice for militants fighting large, well-equipped forces.

In other incidents, one American died of gunshot wounds suffered during an insurgent attack about 6 a.m. Friday, and another died of wounds received while on foot patrol later in the day.

Although foreign casualties make headlines, Afghans are dying in greater numbers, undercutting NATO efforts to win hearts and minds.

"Sure the Taliban didn't give women rights, and young girls couldn't go to school," said Gul Mohammad, 60, a shopkeeper in Kabul, the capital. "But they were good with security. There were no kidnappings, no thieves stealing from our shops.

"We need security."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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