Sides Being Chosen In Afghan Troop Increase

The debate over whether more troops will be needed in Afghanistan is heating up. General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander, is expected to send a request for more forces soon. In Washington, no one is waiting for the formal request — politicians are already taking sides. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following the story and speaks with Guest Host Lynn Neary.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Developments now from Afghanistan. The Pentagon is expected to issue new guidelines for prisoners being held in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say hundreds of detainees who had been swept up in raids will be allowed to challenge their detention and could be released for lack of evidence. This follows news that General Stanley McChrystal, the lead commander in Afghanistan, may seek more troops.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us. Good to have you with us, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: So, will General McChrystal be asking for more troops?

BOWMAN: Well, we expect he will ask for more troops. The big effort he's making is protecting the population. And to do that you need more troops, either American troops, NATO troops or Afghan troops. And one of the big pushes he's also making is to train more Afghan forces as well. So we expect him to ask for some type of troops by the end of the month, either combat troops or additional American trainers.

NEARY: Well, explain. Didn't the president already ask for more troops?

BOWMAN: No, he has. And that's a point a lot of people raise. All those troops haven't even arrived yet in Afghanistan. Four thousand of the 21,000 are trainers. They're not expected to get to Afghanistan for another week or two. They were the 82nd Airborne Division.

So, a lot of people are saying, well, listen - Secretary Robert Gates is among them - saying, listen, all the American troops that have been approved haven't even gotten in country yet. So let's wait and see how they do on the ground before we send even more troops in the future.

NEARY: Now, this past week, Tom, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Service Committee, came out against sending more combat troops to Afghanistan. So, how widely shared is that sentiment on Capitol Hill?

BOWMAN: Well, what's significant about Senator Levin is that he's chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a respected Democrat on defense issues. And what he's saying is he doesn't want to see any more combat troops sent over to Afghanistan. What he would like to see is a lot more trainers - American trainers who can beef up the size of the Afghan army and police.

He would also like to see them, the Afghan soldiers and police, get a lot more equipment as well, and that's very important. We were over there back in the spring and the police, for example, the Afghan police, are driving around in Ford Rangers with no body armor. And, you know, a lot of them are dying in battles with the Taliban. So, that's a very important part, too, is more equipment.

And one other thing he wants, too, is to start what's called a, you know, sort of a Sons of Afghanistan program there as well. And this is something they tried in Iraq. The Sons of Iraq program was former insurgents who came over to the government side and the Americans actually paid them $300 a month not to shoot at them.

What he would like to see is that kind of a program in Afghanistan as well, where you're trying to bring the insurgents in from the cold and offer them jobs or some sort of payment so they're not fighting anymore.

NEARY: Tom, the president came into office saying that he wanted to refocus the country's military efforts on Afghanistan. Has he gone past the point where he can in any way change that effort, that he can pull back from sending more troops in? Is it too late to change?

BOWMAN: Well, again, he's already approved 21,000 troops, and the question is: Will he go beyond that? Will he send even more troops? And the sense is that General McChrystal will come back with various options for troop levels - some in the low end, some in the higher end.

So, what the president could do is choose the lower end. Say, I just want to send an additional 4,000 as trainers maybe next year and just not go with a larger number of forces. But the question for him is, can he say no to the ground commander, who's asking for more resources, who's asking more trainers and combat troops? Can he say no?

Particularly after - during the campaign, he said Afghanistan has to be a priority - that's one thing. The other thing politically is he has a lot a strong Republican support in favor of sending more troops in, it appears. Republicans are against any sort of exit strategy or timetable, whereas the Democrats - a lot of the Democrats particularly on the left - are pushing for that exit strategy.

So, politically, he could get really hit hard on the Republican side for not letting more troops go over, for not abiding by the request of General McChrystal. It could be pretty hard politically for him.

NEARY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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