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General: More Troops in Afghanistan Means Less Risk

(AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The White House has hailed today's vote in Afghanistan as an overall success. U.S. officials in Afghanistan report 95 percent of polling stations opened across the country -- including one hundred percent of the polling centers in Helmand and Kandahar, despite a quadrupling of attacks in that region in recent days.

"Lots of people have defied threats of violence and terror to express their thoughts about the next government for the people of Afghanistan," spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters this morning.

How the vote shakes out as ballots are counted over the next two weeks will be key to helping White House officials determine how much more money and manpower they give to their commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal when he presents his assessment on Afghan strategy in a few weeks. That's according to a series of discussions with senior White House officials, defense advisors and members of McChrystal's staff.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
CBS News has learned that while McChrystal's official assessment will not include troops, that he is already leaning toward a range to recommend to the Pentagon and the White House in mid-to-late fall. The general is leaning toward three major options -- the "high risk strategy" is to add only 15,000 troops to the 68,000 that will be on the ground by the end of this year -- as in, the highest risk of failure. The "medium risk strategy" is to add 25,000 troops, and the "low risk strategy" is 45,000, according to a senior defense adviser helping craft the plan.

The assessment itself is shaping up to be much like a restaurant menu -- with options to choose from, and a list of anticipated costs and hoped -- for tactical and strategic effects, according to two officials familiar with the plan.

The key portion -- and part of what will guide the U.S. troop equation -- will be determining how large to grow the Afghan national security forces. One senior White House official confirmed they are discussing with McChrystal the merits of doubling the combined police and army forces to a total of 400,000.

"McChrystal will give the president options," the official said. "How large the president decides those Afghan forces need to be, and how fast he wants to grow them will determine the cost."

Doubling the forces would likely mean doubling the roughly ten-thousand U.S. and European forces currently devoted to training (directly or in support of trainers), the official said. "That's costing us between five to seven billion dollars a year right now. So double that."

That could bump up the cost from $50 billion this year, to the region of $60 billion and above. "And you'd need to do that for five years," the official said.

Of course, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen will be the interface between McChrystal and the White House in this process -- so just like they played a role in asking McChrystal to keep troop numbers out of his initial assessment, they may again ask him to take more contentious parts of the plan into bite size pieces deemed more manageable for the U.S. public to bear, according to defense analysts close to the process.

The Obama White House is painfully aware that the American public is not invested in this war -- and officials here and in Kabul worry that Mr. Obama's Democratic base will eventually follow that line, especially next year, a Congressional election year. That's going to make a large-scale, multi-year war plan a hard sell -- though that is what McChrystal's advisers have been telling him he needs.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
So the general has been trying to refocus the resources he's already got, to make them stretch. One of his staffers explained from Kabul that he's moving them around to see if he can produce more stability with the ones he's already got.

That's part of a larger strategy guiding both McChrystal and the White House thinking: that this time around, they need to get "better strategic bang" out of every American dollar -- and every life put in harm's way.

"We had outposts in the middle of nowhere," the White House official explained.

Another McChrystal adviser agreed, explaining that both money and manpower are now being focused on areas with "the most people, or the greatest insurgent activity," and to a lesser extent "the greatest opium--growing activity," he explained.

And every aspect of the U.S. government -- and NATO -- is being brought to bear on those areas deemed most important.

Another senior official privy to the White House planning meetings on Afghanistan said the National Security Council has had to rein in some ideas by the Departments of State and Agriculture to invest heavily in parts of the country that are deemed too lightly populated.

"This is not nation building," one member of the McChrystal's Kabul team explained. "Everybody has to get on board with that. We don't have the money to rebuild Afghanistan."

The National Security Council has been in charge of coordinating that message, and making sure every branch of the U.S. government involved in Pakistan and Afghanistan gets it. The NSC got its first across-the-board progress update on Afghanistan last Friday from agencies including the Department of Defense, State, the DNI (Director of National Intelligence), Agriculture, Commerce and "other three-letter agencies," one senior defense official present at the meeting said.

The departments had to relay their progress in nine areas, including: the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan, the promotion of a stable democratic government there; counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan to protect the local population; the effectiveness of the Afghan government; and the coordination of the international support for U.S. efforts.

"We're not happy with everything we heard, but everyone turned something in," said the senior White House official. "Now we have to decide where we go from here."

Watch Kimberly Dozier host "Washington Unplugged" today with more news and analysis of today's vote in Afghanistan:

More Coverage of Afghanistan:

Afghan Polls Close After Low Voter Turnout

See Pictures from Election Day

Lara Logan: What the Afghans Really Want

Polling Shows Public Is Turning Against Afghan War

Kimberly Dozier is a CBS News correspondent based in Washington.
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