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Is The White House Delaying Action On Afghanistan?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, center, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, visits an Afghan army compound in Logar province on August 21, 2009. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, center, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, visits an Afghan army compound in Logar province on August 21, 2009.

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

It has been nearly three weeks since the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, sent an assessment to Washington characterizing a "serious" situation in Afghanistan that will likely require more U.S. forces.

Meanwhile, political opposition — particularly among Democrats — to additional troop deployments has been growing, while there has been little rebuttal from either the White House or the Pentagon.

The situation is vexing military and civilian supporters of a more robust counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan.

President Obama said Wednesday that he will be deliberative in weighing whether to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Obama told reporters, "My determination is to get this right."

There has been a perception in recent weeks that the White House and the Pentagon are waiting for McChrystal to ask for more troops. In fact, it is McChrystal who's waiting on Washington, officials say.

Obama seemed to confirm as much when he said Wednesday: "There is no immediate decision pending on resources."

That response is not likely to satisfy critics in the military and on Capitol Hill who believe the U.S. should escalate its forces now to counter the violence in Afghanistan.

McChrystal has completed his work: a plan that outlines options for even more U.S. forces, equipment and spending. His staff is still waiting for a go-ahead from the administration to send the request, officials said.

"The silence in Washington, D.C., is deafening," says one official familiar with the assessment.

Another official said the administration is "losing control of the agenda."

Pentagon officials and some advisers to McChrystal wonder why the assessment is still classified — especially since the general has talked openly about what needs to be done — or why the general has not been called back to Washington to brief administration officials.

The U.S. currently has about 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, including about 21,000 troops Obama ordered there earlier this year.

Officials say McChrystal will offer several options on troop increases — likely to include both trainers and combat forces — in a plan that he has completed and is now waiting on Washington to request.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of McChrystal's expected troop request: "We'll get to all of that in the coming weeks." Still, Mullen said that a "properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces."

Sources familiar with McChrystal's assessment say it calls for placing a greater focus on protecting the population centers, rather than deploying to more remote parts of the country to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida operatives.

McChrystal is also expected to push for more civilian government advisers to help rebuild the country. The State Department and other agencies say they will send hundreds more civilian workers by the end of the year, though some officials believe that timeline is overly optimistic.

McChrystal also wants a more aggressive effort to provide better governance at the provincial and district levels in Afghanistan. There is a growing worry among both U.S. military and civilian advisers that the government of President Hamid Karzai is not providing the necessary government services at the local level.

There is also a need, according to officials familiar with the assessment, to press the Karzai government to come up with stronger anti-corruption efforts. Corruption is rife in Afghanistan, with allegations that even Karzai's own family is part of the problem.

But what could prove to be the most controversial part of McChrystal's assessment will be his request for more U.S. forces. McChrystal will push for more "partnering" and "mentoring" with Afghan police and soldiers, and boosting the size of both forces. And that will likely mean more U.S. military trainers to greatly increase the size of Afghan police and army units.

"Gen. McChrystal, as we know, has completed an assessment of the challenges still standing in the way of meeting the president's strategy, which clearly will be the requirement" for an increase in the number of troops, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who supports a troop increase, said Tuesday.

"And I want to emphasize, every day we delay in implementing this strategy and increasing the number of troops there, which we all know is vitally needed, puts more and more young Americans who are already there ... in danger," McCain said.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, came out last week against sending more combat forces, though he says more trainers are needed.

Levin said the trainers would help build a "surge" of 400,000 Afghan army and police officers a year earlier than initially planned. The term "surge" is most recently associated with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq that helped bring the nation back from the brink of civil war.

But other Democrats, notably Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, are against sending any more troops, and they are pushing for either a firm exit strategy from Afghanistan, or a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"People talk about winning in Afghanistan or success in Afghanistan. I have no idea what that means," McGovern told NPR. Nobody has defined it, there's no clarity. And I believe that [if] you're going to send American men and women into war, there should be a clearly defined mission. And that means a beginning, a middle, a transition period and an end."

Feingold said the current troop buildup in Afghanistan is "counterproductive," and he wants a discussion about a time frame for bringing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, as well as benchmarks to make sure there is success there. But he says the real problem is not in Afghanistan, but next door in Pakistan.

"Al-Qaida is in Pakistan," says Feingold. "The leaders of al-Qaida — everybody knows ... Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are there. So, you know, it's kind of a foolish thing to know where the enemy is and to spend your resources in a different place."