KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Sunday that when he gives his assessment to the Obama administration next month of what is needed to defeat the Taliban, he won't be deterred by administration statements that he cannot have more U.S. troops.
In an interview with McClatchy, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal also said he won't be guided by concerns in Washington over deficits and the cost of the current campaign in Afghanistan.
"If I change my calculus based on what I think economic or political things are, then they are not benefiting from an absolutely untainted recommendation from me," McChrystal said.
"I am not uninformed about the realities of the world. But what I am trying to do is be able to say: 'This is what I think it will take, my best military advice.' And then, of course, that will be factored in with all the other realities."
"The public can expect and should expect from me to give my best military advice on what I think is required. And I will do that. If I think it requires less forces, I'll say that. If it requires more forces, I'll say that. That's what I think my responsibility is."
McChrystal, who assumed command last month, was given 60 days to provide Defense Secretary Robert Gates with a fresh assessment of what is needed in Afghanistan — the fifth one the administration has sought this year.
But some of McChrystal's advisers were miffed when shortly after McChrystal took command they were visited by National Security Adviser Marine Gen. James Jones, who told them the Obama administration would not allot any more than the 68,000 troops designated for Afghanistan this year.
McChrystal indicated Sunday that Jones' comments, which Jones repeated to McClatchy in an interview after returning to Washington, would not color his recommendation.
Gates, McChrystal said, "directed me to do an assessment that said 'Tell me what you think of the situation. Assess the situation. And tell me what you think you need to be effective in the missions that he has given me.' "
That includes the cost of supporting an expansion of the Afghan Army. The U.S. military has said it wants to expand the Afghan Army to roughly 134,000 from its current 85,000 at an estimated cost of $4 billion.
But some McChrystal advisers think the army should really be 270,000. Such an expansion would cost $8 billion — far more than Afghanistan, which generates only about $800 million in revenue annually, could afford. The additional cost would almost certainly be borne in part by U.S. taxpayers.
McChrystal said Western countries might well find it more attractive to spend money on expanding the Afghan Army than on keeping their own forces in Afghanistan. ""You could have a lot more Afghan national security-force capacity for the cost of coalition forces so far from home," he said "So it will all be part of the final decision on which way to go."
On other topics, McChrystal said:
-- He doesn't believe the rise in the use of roadside bombs - improvised explosive devices, or IEDs - is related to an order he issued two weeks ago requiring U.S. troops to break off contact with the Taliban if civilian lives are at risk. "It's an evolution of tactics," he said. "The Taliban are using IEDs for a number of reasons, the first of which is it is an effective technique."
-- He wasn't concerned by claims from Afghan officials that Taliban fighters had fled ahead of a recent Marine offensive in Helmand province to other parts of Afghanistan. "The further they move from where they are or where they were raised or where they have operated for a given time, the more they've got to readjust themselves and . . . establish connections. I think they have an effectiveness challenge when they do that," he said.
McChrystal also acknowledged that eight years into the war in Afghanistan, U.S. officials here still don't how many Taliban fighters coalition forces face in Helmand province, scene of the Marines offensive.
"It's a difficult number to come by," he said. "If you talk about local Taliban, those who are part time, that rises and falls with conditions. If we do a good job, the number of part-time Taliban should decrease. In terms of irreconcilables . . . I am not confident that I know that number with the kind of clarity that would give you a good solid figure."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
Follow national security developments at McClatchy’s Nukes & Spooks