The top US commander in Afghanistan has asked for 10,000 more troops to be deployed to the country next year, senior US defense officials said on Wednesday.
The extra troops would add to a US force that is already expected to grow this year by 30,000 to stand at 68,000 troops as the US and NATO try to get a grip on rising violence by Taliban militants and other insurgents.
US President Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last week, pledging more troops to train Afghan forces, more civilians to help Afghanistan’s development and more economic aid for Pakistan.
In February, Obama approved the deployment of 17,000 more US troops — mainly combat forces — to Afghanistan.
He does not need to decide on the extra forces requested by US Army General David McKiernan until this autumn and wants to take stock of the war before doing so, said Michele Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy.
“The president made every decision that he needed to make at this point in time and I think those other decisions will be made at the appropriate time,” she told the US Senate’s armed services committee. “Because we are redoubling our effort in Afghanistan and we expect to be making progress throughout this year, we also expect the commander to be reassessing his needs over time.”
US Army General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, said Afghanistan and Pakistan represented the “most urgent problem set” in his area of responsibility, which stretches from the Middle East into central and South Asia.
“There will be nothing easy about the way ahead in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” he told the committee. “The extremists that have established sanctuaries in the rugged border areas not only contribute to the deterioration of security in eastern and southern Afghanistan. They also pose an ever-more serious threat to Pakistan’s very existence.”
US Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, praised Obama’s strategy but criticized the administration for not including a new target for larger Afghan security forces and not approving McKiernan’s request.
“It would be far, far better to announce that we will have the additional 10,000 troops dispatched. They will clearly be needed,” he said. “It is obvious that the Afghan army would have to be around 250,000. It’s a big country.”
The Afghan army is currently set to grow to 134,000 members by the end of 2011. The Obama administration has indicated it favors a larger force but has not set a new target.
“To dribble out these decisions, I think, can create the impression of incrementalism,” McCain said.
Later in the hearing, Flournoy took issue with that description.
“I would never have used the phrase incrementalism to describe this,” she said. “This is a very strong commitment on the military side and on the civilian side, and the economic side, by this president to try to make this mission successful.”