Obama staff gets Afghan war updates

Many military leaders hope for new strategy against Taliban

December 23, 2008|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,Tribune Washington Bureau

The Pentagon and U.S. national security officials are transmitting a battery of new information concerning the Afghanistan war to President-elect Barack Obama's transition team in hopes that the new administration will act quickly to prevent U.S. fortunes there from eroding further.

The effort underscores the urgency of addressing an increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan. Many military leaders say they believe a broad strategic shift is needed to reverse the growing violence and begin to turn back troubling advances by the Taliban and other extremists.

Obama's staff is being given detailed information on findings of separate strategy reviews by the Pentagon and the White House National Security Council. Those reviews cover proposals to beef up U.S. force levels, improve coordination among government agencies and overhaul U.S. foreign aid efforts, including to countries such as Pakistan.

"Right now there is a sense you need to apply a tourniquet of some kind," said a senior Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing contacts with the transition team. "You need to control bleeding at the site of the wound, you need to stabilize, and you need to see what you need to do next."

After a record number of U.S. deaths this year, national security officials consider it crucial for the new administration to act soon after taking office. The senior Defense official said the new administration will have limited time to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan and build up troop strength.

"Over time, it will be harder to put more stuff in," said the senior Defense official. "You have a window where you can do dramatic things. But the opportunity to do dramatic things reduces over time."

During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to intensify the military's focus on Afghanistan, elevating the war to a primary Pentagon effort.

Obama was briefed in person last week by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on details of war plans.

Among other issues, Mullen described the size of the units the Pentagon plans to send to Afghanistan and when they would be sent, Defense officials said.

There are 36,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Based on plans already made public, about 20,000 new troops will be headed to Afghanistan in 2009. They include an additional Army brigade announced by President George W. Bush in September and up to four more brigades under plans endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will remain in his post under Obama.

One of those units, a 2,800-person aviation combat brigade, was approved last week by Gates and formally announced yesterday by military officials. Defense officials said they believe Obama's transition officials are satisfied for now with proposals for force levels.

But while many militarily officials think a short-term troop increase would help, they also believe it should be paired with improved efforts to train local militias, strengthen provincial governments, coordinate U.S. Pakistan-Afghanistan policy and better use U.S. civilian expertise.

Others are concerned that the extra troops could strain the military's logistics system. Gates would oppose larger numbers of extra troops as counterproductive, said a senior Pentagon official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The secretary believes that 'how much is too much' is a legitimate question," said the senior Pentagon official. "He does worry about the U.S. footprint getting too large."

Too many U.S. troops also could weaken the Afghan government's will to build up its own armed forces and take more responsibility, Gates believes.

"He supports the additional combat brigades and aviation brigade," the official said. "Beyond that, it will start to look less like an Afghan operation and more like an occupation."

Mullen is overseeing the Pentagon strategy review. Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, appointed by Bush to coordinate war planning for the White House, is supervising the NSC review.

A third review also is under way, overseen by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the newly appointed head of the U.S. Central Command for forces in the Mideast. Obama is likely to be briefed on the conclusions of that review as well.

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