Top General Calls Afghan Situation Serious

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, submitted a report Monday assessing progress in the war there, saying the situation remains "serious," but that "success is achievable." The report did not address the issue of whether more U.S. troops were needed in Afghanistan.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

First this hour, a major assessment of the war in Afghanistan. The review arrived today from the general running that war, Stanley McChrystal. It acknowledges that the effort is not going well and it will fall to the White House and to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to decide what to do next. Gates spoke to reporters earlier today before he read the McChrystal report.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): While there's a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that General McChrystal's assessment will be a realistic one and set forth the challenges we have in front of us. At the same time I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise.

BLOCK: One big question not answered by the report is whether more assets, meaning more troops, will be requested. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following the story. He joins us now. And Tom, we should clarify the report has not been publically released. General McChrystal did release a brief statement along with it. And he said the situation in Afghanistan is, in his words, serious, but also that, he says, success is achievable. What does he mean by that?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, I think what the general means is success is achievable, but they have a lot of work to do. And I've been talking to a number of sources about what's in the report. And one thing he wants to do is make sure that the troops there - American, Afghan and international troops - focus on protecting the population rather than running around into the more remote valleys and hills chasing Taliban fighters.

Now, he also wants a bigger and better Afghan army and police force, one source told me. The Afghan army is going to grow to about 134,000 by 2011. There's an expectation McChrystal will go tens of thousands of troops beyond that.

BLOCK: And these are things we've been hearing about for some time, Tom. Is there something in the report that indicates a different strategy than what they've been pursuing recently in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Well, one of the things he wants to do along the lines of the Afghan troops is build a much stronger partnership between the U.S. and Afghan forces, working alongside each other in missions, for example. And there are various ways you can do this. You can break down the U.S. units into smaller units and then have Afghan troops sort of integrated into those units - in missions.

And one of those sources I talked with said this is really a fundamental shift in how they're doing business over there. And I think it's important because, really, only local troops can end an insurgency since they obviously know the terrain and the people much better.

BLOCK: Tom, there has been an expectation that General McChrystal will be requesting more troops. That was not part of this assessment today.

BOWMAN: No, that was not. We expect within a week or more, he'll come back with a request for more troops. And we're told he'll do this as several options. It could be, lower option could be one brigade and a brigade is roughly 4,000 or 5,000 soldiers, up to three or more brigades. So he's going to leave it, I believe, to a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and have a discussion about how far they want to go on this.

And the sense I do get is you probably won't see additional troops being sent this year. Most people I talk with say it'll be sometime into next year when you'll see those additional brigades.

BLOCK: So, Tom, if that request were made and approved, that would bring the total U.S. presence in Afghanistan to how many troops?

BOWMAN: Well, right now there are about 64,000 American troops there. It'll go up to about 68,000, probably by October. But the request for additional troops, which, again, we believe McChrystal will request more troops, could be anywhere from an additional 5,000, maybe to an additional 20, 30,000 or more. But, again, obviously there's been no approval for this yet.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa.

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U.S. Commander: New Plan Needed In Afghanistan

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal i i

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, visits an Afghan National Police compound in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province on Aug. 21. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, visits an Afghan National Police compound in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province on Aug. 21.

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. military tactics in Afghanistan are likely to continue shifting after the top American commander delivered a long-awaited assessment Monday that says the situation there is "serious," but salvageable.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who issued the confidential report, is pushing for closer integration of U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said in submitting his report.

McChrystal is not specifically asking for additional troops in this report, but a separate request for forces will be sent in the next week or so, sources tell NPR. The general is expected to offer several options for possible troops increases, from one brigade to at least three, pointing out the risks and greater timeframe inherent in not sending more forces.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the 60-day review to assess the security situation as Taliban attacks continue.

"While there is a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that Gen. McChrystal's assessment will be a realistic one, and set forth the challenges we have in front of us," Gates said Monday when asked about the report. "At the same time, I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise."

McChrystal was named three months ago in an effort to curb the rising Taliban insurgency.

President Obama also ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, raising the total number of U.S. forces there to about 64,000. Another 4,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are slated to arrive next month to train Afghan soldiers.

But August has been the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces since the conflict began in 2001, with 47 troops killed in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.

Some analysts are worried that sending additional troops to Afghanistan could end up backfiring.

"To the extent that the military effort is American-dominated, we begin to look increasingly like an imperial army, which obviously has enormous political ramifications in terms of our ability to marshal opposition to the Taliban and the ability of the Taliban to recruit fighters," says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who now runs his own consulting business.

McChrystal's report is not expected to be made public, but sources tell NPR that the general is pushing to place more of his troops in populated areas, rather than pursuing Taliban guerillas into remote valleys and mountains.

McChrystal also will call for a "bigger and better" Afghan army and police force, along with a stronger U.S. partnership with those forces.

That's a "fundamental shift," one source familiar with the report tells NPR.

U.S. forces are expected to integrate the Afghan troops more in their operations and work as mentors with the Afghan forces.

Under current plans, the Afghan army is projected to grow from 93,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011, and there have been growing calls to make it even larger. But not everyone agrees that Afghanistan can support an army of that size.

"My concern is that even current plans, if realized, will bring about an Afghan army that is economically unsustainable by Afghanistan," says Grenier, adding that the force has additional challenges. "A national army will always face a natural suspicion and a certain level of opposition, particularly in the Pashtun parts of the country where distrusts of the central government is endemic."

Separately, McChrystal is pushing for a greater "unity of effort" with NATO and other countries that have sent troops to Afghanistan. But he is concerned, says one source, that many nations are "running in different directions, different missions, answering to different commands at home and terribly restrictive caveats."

If disunity in NATO's operations is a problem, the scattered efforts of Afghan authorities are potentially even more serious.

The campaign leading to the Aug. 20 election revealed growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is leading in the current vote count, but is so far falling short of a majority of the votes. A runoff in October between Karzai and the second-place finisher will take place if Karzai does not capture more than 50 percent of the vote.

Analysts increasingly point to the Kabul's inability to improve the lives of most Afghans, particularly those living outside of the capital city.

The Obama administration has put an increased emphasis on supporting civilian efforts to improve the economy and deliver health care and other services, but most of the effort relies on a dysfunctional Afghan government.

"The really critical factor will be how and in what way we can induce Afghans to deal with their own problems," says Thomas Pickering, a former top State Department official who co-chaired an influential study on Afghanistan that came out last year. "They have this collective problem of the need to cope with modernization, the Taliban and massive underdevelopment at the same time with a weak central government that has to depend heavily on local authorities."

U.S. efforts to bring in more civilian advisers have been slow, in part because the State Department has a limited number of qualified experts available for assignments in Afghanistan.

"We have the capacity in this country," says Pickering. "Can we build it in the State Department? Yes, of course we can, but it takes a lot of time and it takes funding."

A report by the American Academy of Diplomacy called for boosting the size of the State Department's diplomatic corps by 50 percent, a recommendation driven in part by the shortfalls in Afghanistan. "For example, all State political and USAID field positions in the Afghan provinces are vacant an average of two months a year due to the inability of organizations to cover scheduled absences," the report found.

Pickering notes that Congress is currently debating bills that would boost the State Department's funding and allow for a significant increase in hiring.

"For the first time, people have realized that civilian funding, along with military funding, plays a vital role in addressing problems like Afghanistan," he says.

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