The Pentagon’s top military officers are recommending to President Barack Obama that he shift U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — to focus on ensuring regional stability and eliminating Taliban and Al Qaida safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy and a thriving Afghan economy, officials said.
The recommendations to narrow U.S. goals are contained in a classified report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that is likely to be shown soon to Obama as part of a review of Afghanistan strategy announced by the new administration.
Obama is expected to announce soon his decision on a request for additional forces from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan. Several officials said they believe the president will approve sending three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, totaling roughly 10,000 to 12,000 troops.
But a decision by Obama about whether to approve a more far-reaching shift in U.S. objectives in Afghanistan will be made later as part of the strategy review, the officials said. In addition to the Joint Chiefs, Obama will hear recommendations from Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of U.S. Central Command, and from Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s civilian envoy to Afghanistan. The review is not expected to be completed for several months.
As he weighs his options, Obama will have to balance his calls during the campaign for intensified effort in Afghanistan against recent warnings by some of his senior advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of the dangers of getting deeply engaged in a place that has a long and bloody history of resisting foreign occupations.
Obama has indicated in recent weeks that he favors the idea of setting limited objectives, including ensuring that Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." He cited the need for "more effective military action" while warning of Afghan hostility to foreign troops. His "No. 1 goal" is to stop Al Qaida, he said.
The Chiefs' recommendations have been approved by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and seen by Gates, one official said. In calling for narrowing U.S. goals, the report reflects concern on the part of some Army and Marine commanders about sending thousands of additional American troops to fight in what could be a lengthy conflict in Afghanistan.
Though Obama is likely to approve the three additional three brigades, the Chiefs considered and rejected the option of a recommending an even larger “surge” for Afghanistan, the officials said. More troops could still be approved as part of the strategy review, another official emphasized.
In their report, the Chiefs concluded that the existing American goals in Afghanistan, established by the Bush administration, are overly broad and ambitious. The report does not call for abandoning U.S. hopes of turning Afghanistan into a moderate Western-style democracy, or for halting counternarcotics efforts, but it does suggest making those steps part of a long-term vision, rather than a goal.
With insurgent violence in Afghanistan worsening significantly during the last year, the Chiefs' report argues for setting more concrete objectives that are achievable and realistic in the short-term, the officials said.
Obama already has demonstrated his willingness to employ U.S. strikes using unmanned aircraft in Pakistan’s largely lawless western border region, a tactic originated by the Bush administration.
But the Chiefs are recommending a broader effort to train and equip Pakistani security forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas, and to apply pressure on Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to sever their ties with militants, one of the officials said.
Amid growing concern about the stability of Pakistan, the Chiefs' report also calls for putting reewed focus by the U.S. government on ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remain under its government’s control, the officials said. Though that has long been a U.S. aim, the officials said that including it in the report was a way to focus new attention on the problem in case militant groups threaten Pakistan’s stability.
Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen, declined to comment on the contents of the report.
In a speech on Monday to the Reserve Officers Association, Mullen stressed the need to halt the Al Qaida and Taliban use of the Pakistan’s border regions as safe haven from which to mount attacks in Afghanistan. “We cannot accept that Al Qaeda leadership, which continues to plan against us every single day” has a “safe haven in Pakistan” and “could resume one in Afghanistan,” he said.
Mullen did not mention the Chief’s Afghanistan report in his remarks.
Gates has also called publicly in recent weeks for setting modest, near-term goals for Afghanistan.
“This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money,” he added.
As a presidential candidate, Obama described Afghanistan as a central front in combating terror, drawing a distinction with the Bush administration, which argued that it was in Iraq. Two of the three combat brigades that the Pentagon is recommending he send to Afghanistan are now designated for Iraq and would be redirected, if Obama backs McKiernan’s recommendation.
On Monday, in a quarterly report required by Congress on security conditions in Afghanistan, the Pentagon reported that “the spring and summer of 2008 saw the highest levels of violence” since the U.S. invasion in 2001. “The Taliban regrouped after its fall from power and has coalesced into a resilient and evolving insurgency,” concluded the report. Between January and Dec. 10, 2008, 132 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan died as the result of hostile action, up from 82 in 2007.