Wednesday, November 11, 2009

U.S. ambassador dissents on Afghan troop increase


U.S. ambassador dissents on Afghan troop increase
Strongly worded cables urge a pause until Kabul government shifts course

By Greg Jaffe, Scott Wilson And Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 7:22 PM

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the last week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, said senior U.S. officials.

Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry's memos were sent in the days leading up to a critical meeting Wednesday between President Obama and his national security team to consider several options prepared by military planners for how to proceed in Afghanistan. The proposals, which mark the last stage of a months-long strategy review, call for between 10,000 and 40,000 more troops and a far broader American involvement of the war.

The last-minute dissent by Eikenberry, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, has rankled his former colleagues in the Pentagon -- as well as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said defense officials. McChrystal has bluntly stated that without an increase of tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan in the next year, the mission there "will likely result in failure."

Eikenberry retired from the military in April 2009 as a senior general in NATO and was sworn in as ambassador the next day. His position as a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is likely to give added weight to his concerns. It will also likely fan growing doubts about U.S. prospects for Afghanistan among an increasingly pessimistic public.

Although Eikenberry's extensive military experience was one of the main reasons he was chosen by Obama for the top diplomatic job in Afghanistan, the former general had been reluctant as ambassador to weigh in on military issues. Some officials who favor an increase in troops said they were befuddled by last-minute nature of his strongly worded cables.

In his communications with Washington, Eikenberry has expressed deep reservations about Karzai's erratic behavior and Afghan government corruption, particularly in the senior ranks of the Karzai government, said U.S. officials familiar with the cables. Since Karzai was officially declared re-elected last week, U.S. diplomats have seen little sign that the Afghan president plans to address the problems of corruption they have raised repeatedly with him.

U.S. officials were particularly irritated by a interview this week in which a defiant Karzai said that the West has little interest in Afghanistan and that its troops are there only for their own reasons. "The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan," Karzai told PBS's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. "It is here to fight terrorism. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11. Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us."

Karzai expressed indifference when asked about the withdrawal of most of the hundreds of U.N. employees from Afghanistan following a bombing late last month in Kabul. The blast killed six foreign U.N. officials.

"They may or may not return," Karzai said of the departing U.N. employees. "I don't think Afghanistan will notice it."

In the cables, Eikenberry also expressed frustration with the relative paucity of money set aside for spending on development and reconstruction this year in Afghanistan, a country wrecked by three decades of war. Earlier this summer he asked for $2.5 billion in nonmilitary spending for 2010, a 60 percent increase over what Obama had requested from Congress. But the request has languished even as the administration has debated spending tens of billions of dollars on new troops.

The ambassador also has worried that sending tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops would increase the Afghan government's dependence on U.S. support at a time when its own security forces should be taking on more responsibility for fighting. Prior to serving as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Eikenberry was in charge of the Afghan army training program.

Eikenberry's cables emerged as military planners presented Obama with several options for how to proceed in Afghanistan on Wednesday afternoon that at a minimum would send 20,000 additional U.S. troops. The proposals, marking the last stage of a months-long strategy review, all call for a broader American involvement in the war.

Obama received the options Wednesday afternoon in a Situation Room meeting with his national security team, and he will consider each on his nine-day trip to Asia that begins Thursday. Each strategy is accompanied by precise troop figures and the estimated annual costs of the additional deployments, which run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Facing a nation increasingly pessimistic about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan, Obama is considering a set of options that would all draw America deeper into the war at a time of economic hardship and rising fiscal concerns at home. His own party is largely opposed to expanding the war effort after eight years, and the extended review has revealed a philosophical division within his administration over how to proceed.

The internal deliberations have been shaped in large part by the hard skepticism of his civilian counselors, led by Vice President Biden, who have argued for a more narrow counterterrorism strategy that would not significantly expand the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan.

But Obama's senior military advisers, supported by such influential Cabinet members as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said that only a "jump" in U.S. forces can turn back the Taliban and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for al-Qaeda.

Obama has been seeking a middle ground, along with his national security adviser, James L. Jones, a four-star general described as skeptical that a large additional troop deployment would help stabilize the country. The review has already concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a military and political force, only weakened to the extent that it no longer poses a threat to the weak central government in Kabul.

The options range from a modest training and counterterrorism effort to a broader and likely longer-lasting counterinsurgency program. Whichever course he chooses, Obama will probably have to explain a recalibrated set of U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan nine months after he first articulated his administration's interests there.

Obama is taking into consideration the potential length of an additional American commitment, the effectiveness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the preparedness of Afghanistan's security forces, according to officials familiar with the review. He is also considering the uncertain support of neighboring Pakistan, and his own conclusions about what is realistically achievable against a rising indigenous insurgency.

A senior administration official involved in the review, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations, said "the troop level is only a way of measuring each of these equities against each other."

"Do we have any assurances of what Pakistan will do?" asked the official, who is identified with the group of Obama advisers skeptical of the merits of a large additional troop deployment. "At least in Iraq, you had some functioning government there at the time of the surge. In Afghanistan, there is no government there."

Obama and his senior advisers are also considering the cost of an additional years-long troop deployment, which would require an expensive new base construction program in Afghanistan to accommodate extra personnel.

Administration officials say it costs approximately $1 billion a year to support 1,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a country whose gross domestic product is roughly $900 million. The recently passed defense-spending bill already includes $120 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the coming fiscal year, but any additional resources would have to be approved by Democratic congressional leaders who generally favor few, if any, additional combat troops.

"Everybody's sensitive to costs, for obvious reasons, because we don't have unlimited resources," said a second senior administration official briefed frequently on the internal deliberations. "But the idea is to get the strategy right, determine what's achievable, then select the resources needed. That will drive the cost decisions."

Obama asked for the troop options last month in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday that he would receive four proposals.

The most modest option calls for an additional deployment of 10,000 to 15,000 troops. While under consideration at the White House, the proposal holds little merit for military planners because, after building bases to accommodate 10,000 or so additional soldiers and Marines, the marginal cost of adding troops beyond that figure would rise only slightly.

The most ambitious option Obama is set to receive Wednesday calls for 40,000 additional U.S. troops and mirrors the counterinsurgency strategy outlined by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, in his stark assessment of the war filed at the end of August.

Military planners put the additional annual cost of McChrystal's recommendation at $33 billion, although White House officials say the number is probably closer to $50 billion.

McChrystal called for significantly more U.S. troops to protect Afghan civilians in the country's 10 to 12 largest urban areas, and to take the fight to the Taliban quickly to turn back recent insurgency gains within the next 18 months. Under the best of circumstances, military planners and White House officials say, a deployment of that size would not be completed until 2011.

Although that plan was originally favored by senior military officials, a second option now appears to have Gates's backing and is said to be the Pentagon's preferred choice, according to military planners.

The strategy, referred to by military planners as the "Gates Option," would deploy an additional 30,000 to 35,000 U.S. troops to carry out McChrystal's strategy. It would also rely on the administration's NATO allies to make up the 5,000- to 10,000-troop difference between the U.S. deployment and McChrystal's requested force size.

Of the roughly 100,000 international forces in Afghanistan, 68,000 are American. Obama dispatched 21,000 additional troops in March, a deployment that is just now arriving in full.

Last month, NATO defense ministers endorsed McChrystal's strategy during a meeting in Slovakia, although they did not pledge any additional forces. The war, like the conflict in Iraq, is seen by much of the European public as an unpopular U.S. project.

According to Pentagon and White House officials, Gates will appeal for more troops from the governments of Britain and Canada, in particular. Canada's parliament has ordered the country's 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan out by the end of 2011.

The Dutch government is also scheduled to pull its more than 2,000 troops from Afghanistan next year. White House officials point out that, if Canada and the Netherlands carry out the scheduled withdrawals, one additional U.S. combat brigade sent to Afghanistan would simply be replacing the allies' departing forces, resulting in no net gain on the ground.

Obama has reached out to European allies since taking office, emphasizing the alliances neglected for years by the Bush administration. European leaders have praised the diplomacy, and Gates believes it is time for them to show their support with tangible commitments.

But advisers say that Obama, while supportive of Gates's appeal in theory, is skeptical he can succeed given the depth of European opposition to the war. Military planners estimate that the Gates option would cost $27 billion a year.

The third option, known by military planners as "the hybrid," would send 20,000 additional U.S. troops to shore up security in the major population areas.

In the rest of the country, the military would adopt a counterterrorism strategy targeting al-Qaeda operatives, using Predator drones and other tactics that leave a light U.S. footprint on the ground. The military puts the annual cost at $22 billion.

Although McChrystal identifies between 10 to 12 population areas that need U.S. protection, White House officials say the number could be lower.

Obama asked for a province-by-province analysis of the country to determine where local leaders could be counted on to ensure security, information he is using in part to determine how long U.S. forces might have to remain in the country and at what level.

One senior administration official noted that roughly 68 percent of the Afghan population lives in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, adding that "all of them have some need of protection."

"What do you have to protect to ensure that the Afghan government stays in power?" asked one senior administration official. "You need a level of control over the population that legitimately represents Afghanistan. Whether that's three or five or 10 cities is still part of the debate."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company


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