Yet another review ordered of Afghan policy — fifth this year

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has given the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan 60 days to conduct another review of the American strategy there, the fifth since President Barack Obama took office less than five months ago.

The Defense Department announced Monday that Gates has ordered the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, to submit a review of the U.S. strategy within 60 days of their arrival in Afghanistan.

The National Security Council, the U.S. Central Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff each have already reviewed the U.S. Afghan strategy, and civilian departments conducted a separate interagency review. On March 27, shortly after those reviews were completed, the administration announced a new strategy that called for defeating al Qaida, reducing civilian casualties and eliminating terrorist safe havens.

The administration promised that within weeks it would establish benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan. On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that the administration is still drafting those benchmarks.

Morrell said that Gates asked for the latest review to determine whether the commanders think the new strategy needs to be modified, but he said the review wouldn't delay the deployment of an additional 17,500 U.S. troops and 4,000 trainers.

The need to review a strategy that hasn't been implemented yet is being driven by U.S. domestic politics, as well as by developments on the ground.

The first five months of this year have seen a 59 percent increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, a 62 percent increase in coalition deaths and a 64 percent increase in the use of improvised explosives compared to the same period last year, according to Defense Department statistics. Those are highest levels so far in the eight-year war.

Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats have begun to question the administration's request for additional funds for the Afghan war and what they say is the absence of a clear exit strategy.

"As the mission has grown bigger, the policy has grown even more vague," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

As a result, three defense officials told McClatchy, McChrystal's clearest goal for the next year is to change the perception that the Afghan war is a potential quagmire in time for next year's midterm congressional elections.

They point to the 2006 midterm elections, which became a referendum on the Bush administration and its Iraq policy. Then-president George W. Bush's Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years, and it lost six Senate seats.

"We are not even on the ground yet, but we hear the political clock ticking," said one military officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media. "We are trying to buy time, as well."

With a fighting season already underway, Afghan elections scheduled for August, U.S. troops moving into new areas in southern Afghanistan and a new strategy and new leadership, however, defense officials think McChrystal will have little time to make a major impact.

"We have to buy more time," a senior military officer told McClatchy, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because his remarks weren't authorized. "We have to convince the Afghans that they are better off with us."

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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