Press Secretary Geoff Morrell urged reporters during a Pentagon press briefing to respect deliberations on how to move forward in Afghanistan.
No one understands the urgency of the war in Afghanistan better than Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Morrell said. Gates “signs the deployment orders, he signs the condolence notes,” he said.
Still, Gates believes “that what is ultimately in the best interest of our troops, what will ultimately provide for their well-being and their safe return, is to make sure we have a strategy that is working,” Morrell said.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, delivered his assessment of the situation in the country in late August.
Afghanistan is at a crossroads now, and it makes sense for the president and the rest of the national security team to carefully examine the general’s assessment, and look at the strategy behind the U.S. and NATO effort, Morrell said. McChrystal is expected to deliver his estimate of additional resources — troops and money — to Gates by the end of the week, he said.
The secretary will hold that estimate until discussions on the assessment are over, Morrell said. “It is simply premature to consider additional resources until General McChrystal’s assessment has been fully reviewed and discussed by the president and his team,” he said.
The resource request would complicate the discussion about the strategy, Morrell said. The process is to discuss the strategy and then move to the resources.
Currently, some 68,000 U.S. servicemembers serve in Afghanistan, including 21,500 troops that have deployed since Obama announced the new Afghan strategy in March.
The McChrystal assessment is part of the periodic review that commanders will make to ensure the strategy is still correct. Since Obama’s announcement in March, there have been Afghan elections, a new commander and an increased emphasis on training Afghan security forces..
Given the stakes, officials do not think it has taken too long, Morrell said.
“I think the secretary is very comfortable, as is the commander downrange, at how this is progressing,” he said. “And it’s going in order; it’s going according to everybody’s prescribed methods; and we’ll get there.”
U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have increased, partly because more servicemembers are in the country. Other reasons for increased casualties are because they are going into areas previously unoccupied and because of increased enemy operations. More than 85 percent of the casualties are the result of roadside bombs.
“That is why the secretary has been so determined to get thousands more enablers, experts and route clearance and explosive ordnance disposal and intelligence, and in addition to this, thousands of new armored vehicles over and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], to make sure we can defeat this [improvised explosive device] network just as we did in Iraq,” Morrell said.
There is a lot of sound and fury in American newspapers and over the airwaves on Afghanistan and the McChrystal assessment. But action in Afghanistan doesn’t stop for strategy discussions in Washington or Brussels, the press secretary said.
U.S., NATO and Afghan troops are probably at the highest operational tempo since the conflict began, he said. The 82nd Airborne Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team is finishing its deployment to the country, and enablers are flowing in.
Troops in Afghanistan are making life-and-death decisions and their focus is on the mission — not the discussion inside the Beltway, Morrell said.
The troops “know that there is a chain of command and that there are people at that top of the chain of command whose job it is to deal with those kinds of issues,” he said. “And so I don’t think it is a distraction.”