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The Great Afghan Numbers Debate

Updated: New "Gates Option" said to be Pentagon's preferred choice.

Today’s Washington Post says Defense Secretary Gates is pushing an additional troop plan; since Gates has driven Obama’s defense agenda it’s probably the one that will be enacted. Called the “Gates Option,” it would deploy between 30,000 and 35,000 U.S. troops for the counterinsurgency effort and rely on NATO allies to add 5,000 to 10,000 troops to get to McChrystal’s magic 40,000 figure. The story says any significant troop increase will require building many new bases in Afghanistan and at least a year to deploy them.

Where do things stand with the great Afghanistan troop numbers decision, some two months after Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued a request for reinforcements? News outlets have been stumbling over each other to report that President Obama has settled on a final number. The speculation continues despite a brush-back thrown Monday night by National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who said in an emailed statement to reporters: “Reports that President Obama has made a decision about Afghanistan are absolutely false.”

Over the weekend, McClatchy had by far the most detailed report, saying the plus-up number would be 34,000, to include three Army brigades from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne Divisions, a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and a new division headquarters to be stood up in Kandahar. The first of the new brigades would arrive in March and the rest would follow at three month intervals.

The AP reported on Monday that “tens of thousands” more forces would go, but not quite the 40,000 figure reportedly requested by ISAF commander McChrystal. The story says the additional troops would be tasked with providing security in ten key towns and cities.

CBS News reported the number would be around 40,000, or four combat brigades plus thousands more support troops, so nothing really different than what McClatchy ran with. The story adds that a fighting force of around 100,000 American troops would be kept in Afghanistan for about four years or until the Afghan security forces are able to stand on their own.

Today’s New York Times portrays Obama as undecided and keeping his options open, with his senior military and foreign advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all favoring around 30,000 more troops. Strategic options Obama is said to be mulling over include how much of Afghanistan must be controlled and how rapidly the Afghan security forces can be expanded.

Today’s Wall Street Journal goes with the 30,000 to 35,000 number to include up to 10,000 advisers to train the Afghan forces. The reinforcements would begin to arrive as early as January and would include three Army brigades and a Marine regiment. The pace of the buildup would be slow, lasting as long as two years.

Everybody appears to be playing off the same sheet of music with leaks from inside the Pentagon by military officials fleshing out the details of McChrystal’s preferred force package and White House sources saying Obama has yet to make a final decision.

For weeks now the leaks have been stuck on the 40,000 figure. Whether or not that’s exactly the number Obama eventually goes with, it’s the neighborhood. There is every reason to expect total force levels in Afghanistan to fluctuate over time based on the ebb and flow of the fighting on the ground and periodic strategic reviews.

There is no mention in any of the reports about how many additional helicopter brigades might be sent to the theater, or how many more aerial drones will be flowing in over the next few months. These “enablers” are as critical as more troops and perhaps even more so.

Via The Washington Times we learn that aerial drone coverage on the ground is very thin; the commander of the Army Stryker brigade operating around Kandahar said flat out his troops do not have enough “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities.” His brigade has already lost 21 Stryker vehicles to IED attacks, in part because they can’t get a “persistent stare” on the few, and very predictable, roads they’re able to use.

Larger theater commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is trying to balance force levels and equipment between Iraq, where the drawdown continues, and the plus-up underway in Afghanistan. At a counterinsurgency conference a couple of months back he said Central Command is trying to move as many drones and other surveillance aircraft from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh, commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing at Kandahar Air Field, recently told us the number of drones operating in Afghanistan’s skies has nearly doubled over the past year. Clearly they need more. He said the ramp at Kandahar can’t handle any more fighter jets, with 270 aircraft already based there, but they will be adding aerial drones over the next year.

Where will the reinforcements go, assuming Obama gives the go ahead? Petraeus said that nearly 70 percent of the Taliban attacks occur in just ten districts and the approach he favors is “to concentrate your effort in those areas where the insurgency is most threatening the population and you have the most people and they most matter.” Those areas where the attack “density plots” were most concentrated include Helmand, Kandahar and a handful of locations in Regional Command East, he said.

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