In the Arena

Afghan Numbers Game

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I was wrong in last week’s print column–wishful thinking on the part of my sources, I think–about the actual options that General Stanley McChrystal has presented the President for ramping up the US military presence. The real numbers appear to be: 10,000…40,000…or 80,000. I say “appear” because I’ve heard those numbers, but can’t fully confirm them–and apparently the New York Times has heard the same thing, tucking this paragraph inconspicuously into a piece about Afghan corruption:

Officials said over the weekend that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, had prepared options that include a maximum troop increase of about 80,000, a number highly unlikely to be considered seriously by the White House. Much of the official focus has been on a lower option that the general presented, for 40,000 additional troops. The United States currently has about 68,000 troops in the country.

Now, the 80,000 is obviously a straw man. And the new numbers don’t change my prediction in last week’s column: 20, ooo or thereabouts–in other words, something less than the 40,000 McChrystal actually wants.

But my prediction is just a prediction (and my sense of what would be appropriate)–and all rumors about where the Administration is headed on this decision seem to be only that: rumors. Indeed, I’ve heard that many of the people who’ve been in the Situation Room for the Afghan strategy meetings are not certain where the President will wind up: his questions for those who want to maintain current troop levels are as intensely skeptical as the questions he asks those who support a military surge.

And there is an additional factor added to the mix in recent days: how will the Pakistani Army respond to the Taliban attack on its military intelligence headquarters in Rawalpindi over the weekend? If, as is often said, Pakistan is an army in search of a country, this was the equivalent of terrorists successfully breaching the Capitol. And so, again: Will this lead the Pakistanis to finally mount their long-promised assault on the Taliban in their South Waziristan homelands? Or will they concentrate on Punjab–the Army’s homeland–which is now riddled with terrorist cells? Needless to say, the more pressure the Paks put on the Taliban along the Afghan border, the more plausible our Afghan adventure becomes.

But the President really can’t make an informed decision until we (a) know what the Pakistanis are actually going to do and (b) know how and when the Afghan presidential election is finally resolved. I’m told this decision may still be weeks away–and it should be. But it could come tomorrow: the President plays his cards on close hold.