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More troops for Afghanistan possible

| Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. general put in charge of turning around the war in Afghanistan is likely to recommend significant changes in the campaign and may include a request for more U.S. forces, which the White House is expected to resist.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's long-awaited reassessment of the war against Taliban insurgents aims for a transformation of the shaky relationship between U.S. forces and Afghan civilians as troops press a counterinsurgency strategy of clearing and holding populated areas, said officials apprised of the report's contents.

The biggest change urged in McChrystal's report is a "cultural shift" in how American and foreign troops operate -- ranging from how they live and travel among the Afghan population to where and how they fight, a senior military official in Kabul said Friday.

The latest draft of the assessment urges speeding up the training of Afghan soldiers and police and nearly doubling their numbers to about 400,000, said a senior defense official in Washington, one of several uniformed and civilian officials who spoke on condition anonymity because the report has not been made public.

As McChrystal readies the assessment of the war, due in two weeks, numerous officials and outsiders aware of his thinking suggest he will request in a companion report that more American troops, probably including Marines, be added next year.

Several people familiar with the work being done cautioned that McChrystal could opt not to ask for an increase at all -- a recognition that President Obama and other White House advisers would not look favorably on adding new numbers to forces after agreeing to boost their ranks by 21,000 troops earlier this year.

The main recommendations for change stem from the military's new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which is designed to focus less on going after Taliban strongholds and more on protecting the local population.

The new strategy is aimed at helping develop an Afghan government that civilians will embrace rather than siding with the insurgents, two senior military officials said.

To achieve that, one official said, the latest draft of McChrystal's assessment on the war includes the following recommendations:

• Using intelligence less to hunt insurgents and more to understand local, tribal and social power structures in the areas where they operate. McChrystal is considering concentrating troops around populated areas rather than going after sparsely populated mountain areas where Taliban hide.

• Getting troops more active in fighting corruption. U.S. forces will need to take care in their dealings with local Afghan leaders to ensure they are not perceived by the Afghan population to be empowering corrupt officials.

In preparing his assessment of the Afghan command, McChrystal found an American military culture that showed a great concern for troops' protection -- sometimes at the expense of their relations with Afghan civilians.

To change those relations, McChrystal wants American forces to think twice about basic conduct -- for instance no longer pointing their guns at people when they pass in convoy or blocking narrow roads with their convoys, while relegating Afghans to the ditches.

To deal with the most contentious aspect of those shaky relations, McChrystal has committed to try to reduce civilian casualties by issuing new orders that restrict when troops should call in bombing strikes.

A United Nations report released yesterday said the number of Afghan civilians killed in the conflict has jumped 24 percent so far this year, with bombings by insurgents and airstrikes by international forces the biggest killers. The report said 310 civilians had been killed by international and Afghan coalition forces so far in 2009, including 200 killed by airstrikes.

Two of McChrystal's civilian advisers, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, said this week they expect some expansion of troops. Neither adviser would quantify those numbers.

Biddle said Thursday he thinks the total number of troops in Afghanistan should number 300,000 to 600,000, including U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.

Forces include 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied troops, plus about 175,000 Afghan Army and police. Some of the allies plan to pull their troops home in the next couple of years.

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