WASHINGTON — Six months after it announced its strategy for Afghanistan, the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about its objectives there and how many troops are needed to achieve them.
The conflicting messages are drawing increasing ire from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and frustrating military leaders, who're trying to figure out how to demonstrate that they're making progress in the 12-18 months that the administration has given them.
Adding to the frustration, according to officials in Kabul and Washington, are White House and Pentagon directives made over the last six weeks that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, not submit his request for as many as 45,000 additional troops because the administration isn't ready for it.
In the last two weeks, top administration leaders have suggested that more American troops will be sent to Afghanistan, and then called that suggestion "premature." Earlier this month, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that "time is not on our side"; on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the public "to take a deep breath."
The White House didn't respond to requests for comment. Officials willing to speak did so only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
In Kabul, some members of McChrystal's staff said they don't understand why Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" but still hasn't given them the resources they need to turn things around quickly.
Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that the McChrystal they know would resign before he'd stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.
"Yes, he'll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far," a senior official in Kabul said. "He'll hold his ground. He's not going to bend to political pressure."
On Thursday, Gates danced around the question of when the administration would be ready to receive McChrystal's request, which was completed in late August. "We're working through the process by which we want that submitted," he said.
There now are 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the rest of the additional troops Obama ordered are expected to arrive by November, bringing the total to 68,000.
Violence is at its highest levels of the war as the resurgent Taliban take over more of the country. Since Obama took office, 197 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan, as of Friday. In August, 2009 became the deadliest year of the nearly eight-year war for American troops. So far, at least 25 have been killed this month.
A troop increase appeared likely earlier this month. Gates, who'd cautioned against sending too many troops to Afghanistan out of fear that Afghans would view the U.S. as an occupying power similar to the Soviet Union, began to distinguish between the "size of the footprint" and the "behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans."
Mullen said Tuesday on Capitol Hill that the United States "probably" would send more troops. By Thursday, however, Gates was calling for more time, and in an interview with CNN, Vice President Joe Biden said it was "premature" to assume that more troops would be sent to Afghanistan.
The administration's seeming indecisiveness may be due to late realization of just how big a commitment would be required to pacify Afghanistan, a senior defense official told McClatchy.
Last March, the administration declared that it had a strategy for Afghanistan. Within days of taking office, it gave Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, 60 days to craft an Afghanistan strategy. He outlined a policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which officials now refer to as "AfPak," and called for the United States to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al Qaida.
The administration, however, never considered what resources Riedel's policy would require, the senior military official said.
As violence soared, it became clear that the administration's commitment of 17,700 more combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan would not be enough to calm the country.
The cost of the war also soared. According to Defense Department figures, the Afghan war was costing the Pentagon $2 billion a month as of last October. By June, that cost had climbed to $6.7 billion a month — and that was before most of the additional troops had arrived.
The Pentagon estimates that maintaining a 134,000-strong Afghan army would cost about $3 billion a year in a country that generates $800 million a year in total revenue, meaning that the United States and its allies may be making an indefinite financial commitment.
Now the administration is fully considering the war costs, in resources and political capital, White House and defense officials said. It's laid out eight broad metrics for success and begun a debate about whether the United States has the resources to sustain the strategy in Riedel's report.
It's also asking whether it's wise to build an Afghan National Army that's likely to serve President Hamid Karzai, whose administration is riddled with corruption and whose legitimacy would be open to question if he claims victory in the Aug. 20 election whose results still have not been decided amid allegations of fraud.
"There has been a sense of ownership (within the White House) in the last six months . . . an awakening," one senior defense official said. At this stage, the administration is asking itself whether it wants to "commit the troops, civilians, dollars and itself to Afghanistan."
The White House still hasn't decided how much political capital it wants to invest in Afghanistan, and it considers a health care overhaul, financial regulatory revisions and energy policy its priorities, the senior defense official said.
In Kabul, however, U.S. commanders said they thought that Obama's strategy was based on McChrystal's assessment of what he needs. "We thought that bringing McChrystal here was their strategy," one said.
Those officials said that taking time could be costly because the U.S. risked losing the Afghans' support. "Dithering is just as destructive as 10 car bombs," the senior official in Kabul said. "They have seen us leave before. They are really good at picking the right side to ally with."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY