Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


More Troops? A Tough Choice On Afghanistan Looms

Gen. Stanley McChrystal commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily," he writes in a confidential report, "but we can defeat ourselves" without a change in strategy and more troops.
David Gilkey/NPR
Gen. Stanley McChrystal commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily," he writes in a confidential report, "but we can defeat ourselves" without a change in strategy and more troops.

More troops and resources are needed in Afghanistan to avoid failure, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, writes in a confidential report being reviewed by the Obama administration.

Officials had been describing parts of the 66-page assessment in recent days, but the full document — leaked to The Washington Post — is a grimmer-than-expected cataloguing of the challenges facing the United States and NATO in Afghanistan as the Taliban grows more sophisticated and dangerous.

Here's a look at what the report says, the early reaction to its findings, and what it means for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan:


Can the U.S. and its allies win the war?

McChrystal says that victory is still achievable, but along with calling for more troops, he wants to make significant shifts in U.S. and NATO tactics. "The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily," he writes, "but we can defeat ourselves."

How many more troops is McChrystal asking for?

McChrystal doesn't lay out a specific request in this report. While he has reportedly assembled several options — the mostly likely is a proposal to deploy as many as 30,000 additional troops and trainers — he has yet to submit the request to the Pentagon. President Obama ordered 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan earlier this year to raise the total U.S. force to 68,000 by the end of this year.

What has Obama said about the general's report?


The White House says Obama has seen the report but has not received a formal request for more troops. Before any decision is made about troop levels, Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday, "the president is going to focus on getting the strategy right."

How is the report being received in Washington?

It's still early, but the warnings of possible failure, and some of the harsh criticisms of U.S. and NATO tactics, have caught people by surprise. "It's causing a certain degree of alarm and concern over here," says one State Department official. "But the closer you are to Afghanistan, the less surprised you are at just how dire the circumstances are there."

With Democrats in Congress growing increasingly hostile to the idea, any plan to send tens of thousands of more troops is becoming politically more difficult each week, particularly as violence in Afghanistan continues to rise.

Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told NPR's All Things Considered that it is too early to consider expanding the U.S. military's combat footprint in Afghanistan.

"I have to agree that additional resources are required," he said. "It's absolutely urgent we get the trainers in there to increase the size of the Afghan army. It's absolutely urgent that we have a plan, which we do not have, to reintegrate those local Taliban fighters. But we should not just focus on that one aspect which people assume McChrystal will be asking for, which is large numbers of combat forces."

But McChrystal is blunt about the alternative. "Inadequate resources," he writes, "will likely result in failure."

Is that because the Taliban and other insurgent groups are winning?

Not exactly, but they are growing stronger. McChrystal says that the insurgents cannot defeat the United States and NATO militarily, but they "currently have the initiative."

One obvious sign is that U.S. casualties hit record levels this summer. But beyond the rising Taliban attacks, the insurgents are also effectively undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government, which appears powerless to defend Afghan civilians.

"These groups are dangerous and, if not effectively countered, could exhaust the coalition and prevent [the Afghan government] from being able to govern the state of Afghanistan," the report concludes.

Does McChrystal say why the war isn't going better for the U.S. and NATO?

He places a surprising amount of emphasis on tactical and strategic mistakes made by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which includes some 30,000 U.S. troops and more than 30,000 troops from NATO countries.

"ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population," McChrystal writes.

So, after eight years in Afghanistan more attention needs to be paid to understanding and knowing the Afghans?

McChrystal says that ISAF focuses too much on protecting its own soldiers and relies too heavily on firepower, a combination that has resulted in too many civilian casualties and has damaged the military force's legitimacy. More broadly, he says the force is failing to implement the basic strategies of counterinsurgency, and needs to do more to protect Afghan civilians.

McChrystal's report seems unusually tough on NATO's operations in Afghanistan. Will this criticism become awkward for him?

The barbed criticisms could certainly complicate his relations with other NATO generals in the short term, but he is broadly critical of both U.S. and NATO tactics. The memo was supposed to remain confidential, but McChrystal is a savvy general and most likely realized that its contents could end up getting leaked. His findings were clearly intended to provoke serious strategic shifts in both U.S. and NATO operations.

And how has NATO reacted to this criticism?

NATO countries are still reviewing McChrystal's report.

"We've recognized some of those areas where we can reinvigorate the strategy," says one Western European diplomat. "I don't get the sense that people are feeling this is being particularly targeted at certain NATO partners. We are aware of the reality on the ground and problems posed in Afghanistan."

It sounds like McChrystal is even tougher on the Afghan government.

His assessment is quite harsh. "The Afghan government has been unable to provide sufficient security, justice, and basic services to the people," he writes. "Widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity."

The corruption is particularly insidious, he adds, because many Afghans assume that U.S. and NATO forces are complicit. Even worse, some of the corrupt officials provide direct support to insurgent groups and criminal networks, according to the memo.

Doesn't the disputed presidential election last month make this perception worse?

Almost certainly. The allegations of vote-rigging are so widespread that most Afghan assume that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's backers in particular tried to steal the election. It also casts a sharp light on the many alliances he made in recent months with local Afghan warlords, many of whom apparently worked to rig the vote.

"If the elections produced anything, it put into sharp relief some of the problems that we need to address over there," admits one U.S. official.

Are there any surprising problems he identified?

Most of his findings elaborate on well-known problems. But he is sharply critical of the lack of coordination between ISAF, the United Nations, and various international civilian efforts to bring security to the Afghan people and begin the rebuilding process.

"Failure to deliver on promises further alienates the people," McChrystal writes. "The international community must address its own corrupt of counter-productive practices, including reducing the amount of development money that goes toward overhead and intermediaries other than the Afghan people."

He adds that even ISAF itself is not coordinating well enough between various military commands, a problem exacerbated by its multinational character.

What does this mean for President Obama's plan to boost the number of U.S. civilians working on the ground on rebuilding efforts?

McChrystal does not directly comment on how well the State Department and other agencies are doing in sending over additional civilian experts, but he does say that a reinforced military operation cannot succeed without "a corresponding cadre of civilian experts."

The State Department has been working over the past four months to send in additional civilian experts, but officials concede that it takes a long time for their impact to be felt in the field.

"It is far easer to perform the civilian activities we're called on to do when there is security," says one State Department official "The more troops you have, the more likely it is that the civilian efforts can take root."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit