While the Defense Department has yet to receive a formal appeal for more forces from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a request for resources from the general due in coming weeks could include such an appeal.
“The secretary’s thinking on this as a work in progress,” Morrell said, speaking to Pentagon reporters about Gates’ deliberation. “He is undecided on this issue and is still debating it himself, still analyzing it himself, and has yet to come to a final resolution.”
Gates’ thinking on the prospect of a larger force in Afghanistan has evolved from his original position that an “increased footprint” could alienate the United States from the Afghan population, Morrell said. About 62,000 American forces are deployed there, along with 38,000 allied troops. But Gates has said that since taking the top command position in Afghanistan in June, McChrystal has mitigated some of the secretary’s concerns about a larger U.S. presence.
“[McChrystal’s] explanation is that it’s not so much the size of the force, but the behavior of the force that determines whether or not it is accepted by the Afghan people,” Morrell said.
Much of Gates’ decision depends on the content of McChrystal’s resource request, Morrell said. “But even before that, [Gates] has begun discussions with the president and others about the assessment that’s been turned in and how that impacts the way ahead in Afghanistan,” he added.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, appearing today before Congress, said that while he doesn’t know what additional resources McChrystal may request, more forces probably are required.
“But I do believe that — having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership — a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces and, without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance,” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gates and Mullen have discussed the issue of force size at length and will continue talks before President Barack Obama reaches any final decision, Morrell said. He added that a number of “moving parts” — including an ongoing “optimization assessment” McChrystal is conducting to determine how to make the force as efficient as possible — could have policy implications.
“I can just tell you that the secretary, I think, is still more in the evolution process in his thinking than having arrived at a decision as to whether or not, yes, significant numbers of additional forces are needed, or no, they aren’t,” he added.
While he continues weighing the possibility of increased force levels, Gates has taken a definitive stance on the kinds of capabilities U.S. forces require in Afghanistan, Morrell said.
“He believes that we have to provide more counter-IED capabilities to our forces in Afghanistan as soon as possible,” said Morrell, referring to improvised explosive devices — the weapon that has claimed more U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other means of war.
Morrell said such IED countermeasures include teams of route-clearance experts, explosive ordnance disposal teams, medical evacuation and intelligence assets, and the hardware they require.
“[Gates] is working right now to figure out how to provide those additional capabilities so that the forces that have already been committed to Afghanistan have the protection that they deserve and require against a growing IED threat,” he said.