As the Pentagon's heavy hitters make their rounds on Capital Hill this week, the focus has been on a disclosure by Gen. David Petraeus, the top general in command of America's two wars, that the military has requested 10,000 more U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan.
But this appeal for more troops has been no secret around the halls of the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill. Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has been lobbying for 30,000 troops almost since he arrived in the country last June, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved his request even before President Obama's inauguration.
The question has been whether the president would go along with it. Part of the answer came in February, when Obama agreed to send 17,000 of the requested 30,000 combat troops to the violent southern and eastern provinces of the country. Last month, when Obama unveiled his new way forward in Afghanistan, he approved an additional 4,000 troops to act as trainers for Afghan military and police.
The lingering question has been whether the remaining troops McKiernan requested, some 10,000, would soon be on their way to Afghanistan, where security has been rapidly deteriorating.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, was testy on this point during this week's hearings. He told Michelle Flournoy, the president's new under secretary of defense for policy, that he thought it would be "far, far better to announce that we will have the additional 10,000 troops dispatched," since "they would clearly be needed." He added that "to dribble out these decisions, I think, can create the impression of incrementalism."
Such a statement seemed to echo a charge leveled against President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, in which he approved only some of the troops initially requested by commanders on the ground there in 1965 and then reluctantly sent more under Pentagon pressure.
But the Pentagon has made it clear to the White House that it doesn't need the president to make a decision on the remaining troops until the fall, since top military planners aren't counting on those troops arriving until sometime in 2010. A fall announcement would give them plenty of time to make sure the soldiers and their equipment arrived in Afghanistan by then.
Flournoy said that in the intervening months, the administration would be carefully monitoring progress among the troops already there now, as well as those who will be arriving by summer's end. But just how it will measure progress remains an open question.