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US Mideast Commander Endorses Afghanistan Assessment, Current Strategy

By Al Pessin
23 September 2009

The commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, who was also the architect of the Iraq turnaround two years ago, has endorsed the grim assessment by the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus says the only way to fight terrorism is to take the multi-dimensional approach embodied in the current strategy there.

General Petraeus says he and the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, both endorsed the secret assessment made late last month by the new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Most of that largely grim assessment was made public Monday by the Washington Post. McChrystal described a situation in which the Taliban and related groups are advancing, and said he needs more resources to avoid mission failure.

Speaking to a conference of military and civilian counterinsurgency experts, General Petraeus declined to discuss the specifics of the McChrystal assessment or the ongoing deliberations, but he did repeat a point he has often made about how he believes extremists must be fought.

"To counter terrorism, and I'm talking about terrorism writ large, extremism, requires more than just your special mission unit forces. It really requires a whole of governments, counterinsurgency approach. Many different government agencies, civil-military partnerships and, again, a comprehensive approach to these problems is the answer," he said.

General Petraeus appeared to be pointedly rejecting suggestions by some analysts, and some officials and members of Congress, that the United States should scale back its ground operations in Afghanistan and focus on air strikes and special operations missions. Other senior military officers and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have made similar points.

But earlier Wednesday, Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell said senior officials are considering whether a full counterinsurgency campaign, with large numbers of troops and civilians, is the right approach. He noted that the president said he would regularly review his policy when he announced it in March. Morrell said the review does not mean that the counterinsurgency approach is over, but rather that U.S. officials want to make sure their strategy is right before committing significant numbers of additional troops.

The spokesman also said the general's specific troop request will be sent to Secretary Gates this week, as the review continues. He said Gates will hold the new troop request until the strategy review is completed. "There is no sense in complicating a discussion about strategy with the resource request. We want to do them in order. And I do not think this is going to take unduly long, nor has it taken unduly long," he said.

Morrell acknowledged that if the president decides to adjust his strategy, there may have to be changes to the troop request. "If there are adjustments, there may have to be adjustments made in terms of what is required to achieve the mission if it changes," he said.

Morrell said the general's request will contain further analysis and a range of force level options for the president to consider, along with a statement of the risks of each option. General McChrystal is expected to ask for tens of thousands more troops in an effort to bring stability to Afghan population centers.

President Obama has already increased the U.S. troop presence by more than 21,000 to about 68,000, and authorized more aggressive operations against the Taliban, which have resulted in a sharp increase in U.S. casualties.

This year, more than 360 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan. That is 25 percent of total U.S. casualties in the full eight years of the war. Morrell acknowledges the troop deployment decision is particularly difficult because of the sharp increase in casualties.

"There are no two people in government who appreciate the gravity of the decisions that are being discussed and that will ultimately be made than the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States. The secretary understands that this is a hugely consequential decision for the president, and he wants to make sure that the president, and himself frankly, are very comfortable with it before they send thousands more young men and women off to battle," he said.

Morrell says it is in the troops' interest for the leaders to come up with a strategy that works.

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