U.S. To Protect 10 Afghan Population Centers
By Thom Shanker, Peter Baker and Helene Cooper, The New York Times
October 29, 2009 "Post-Gazette" -- WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's advisers are coalescing around a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers, administration officials said yesterday, describing an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability.
Mr. Obama has yet to make a decision, but as officials described it, the debate is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed to guard the country's most vital parts. The question of how much of the country should fall under direct protection of U.S. and NATO forces will be central to deciding how many troops Mr. Obama will dispatch.
In southern Afghanistan yesterday, eight U.S. military members died in combat, bringing October's total to 53 and making it the deadliest month for Americans in the eight-year war. September and October were both deadlier months overall for NATO troops.
The U.S. troops, along with an Afghan interpreter accompanying them, were killed and an undisclosed number of troops injured in several attacks involving "multiple, complex" improvised bombs, according to a statement by the NATO-led coalition.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said Taliban fighters had blown up two armored vehicles carrying the troops near Zabul province. He also said the Taliban had engaged in a fierce firefight lasting more than a half-hour with Afghan police in Zabul and killed eight.
His report could not be verified because the U.S. military is withholding additional information until families of the dead have been notified.
On Monday, two helicopter crashes resulted in the death of 11 U.S. troops and three federal drug enforcement agents, but hostile fire was almost certainly not a factor in those cases, according to a military spokesman.
The October toll of 53 U.S. soldiers killed exceeds that of August, when 51 died, according to icasualties.org, a Web site tracking military losses in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Also yesterday, the U.S. and NATO-led forces said an Army plane missing since Oct. 13 was found Wednesday with the remains of three civilian crew members in high mountains of northeastern Afghanistan over Nuristan province, where the military has been conducting extensive operations. The army said the plane's disappearance had not been announced until recovery efforts were complete.
The aircraft was stripped of all sensitive materials and destroyed in place, a statement from the NATO-led forces said. The case is under investigation, but the military said it did not think hostile action was the crash cause.
The United States has been increasing the number of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, and many have gone into some of the country's toughest areas. Southern Afghanistan has been the most contested ground, with both locally based insurgents and fighters who cross the border from Pakistan.
Under the strategy officials described yesterday, the administration now is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to secure Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, seen as a center of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances.
But military planners are also pressing for enough troops to safeguard major agricultural areas, like the hotly contested Helmand River valley, as well as regional highways essential to the economy -- tasks that would require significantly more reinforcements beyond the 21,000 deployed by Mr. Obama this year.
One administration official said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, had briefed Mr. Obama's advisers on how he would deploy any new troops under the approach being considered by the White House.
Administration and military officials emphasized that the strategy would include other elements, such as accelerated training for Afghan troops, expanded economic development and reconciliation with less-radical Taliban members.
But such a strategy would be open to complaints that U.S. and allied forces were, in effect, giving insurgents free rein across large swaths of the nation, allowing the Taliban to establish mini-states complete with training camps that could be used by al-Qaida. "We are not talking about surrendering the rest of the country to the Taliban," a senior administration official said.
Military officers said they would maintain pressure on insurgents in remote regions by using surveillance drones and reports from people in the field to find pockets of Taliban fighters and guide attacks, in particular by Special Operations forces.
But a range of officials made the case that many insurgents fighting Americans in distant locations are motivated not by jihadist ideology, but by local grievances, and therefore are not much threat either to the United States or the Kabul government.
At this strategy's heart is the conclusion that the United States cannot completely eradicate the insurgency in a nation where the Taliban is an indigenous force -- nor does it need to do so to protect U.S. national security. Instead, the focus would be on preventing al-Qaida from returning in force, while containing and weakening the Taliban long enough to build Afghan security forces eventually to take over the mission.
In effect, the approach blends ideas advanced by Gen. McChrystal and by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, seen as opposite poles in the internal debate. Gen. McChrystal has sought at least another 40,000 troops for a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting Afghan civilians, so they will support the central government. Mr. Biden has opposed a buildup on the grounds that a bigger military footprint could be counterproductive, and that fighting al-Qaida in Pakistan should be the main priority.
A strategy of protecting major Afghan population centers would be "McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country," as one administration official put it. Officials said Defense Secretary Robert Gates was playing a crucial role, balancing the case made by commanders and the skepticism of some civilians on Mr. Obama's war council, as the debate entered its final days.
A senior military officer said Gen. McChrystal wants the most expansive definition of population centers to include fertile valleys and economic belts as well as major roadways -- in particular the national ring road that is the central link for commerce -- as well as four or five roadways linking Afghanistan eastward to Pakistan and westward to Iran.
The New York Times' Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.