McChrystal troops request shelved pending review

KABUL/WASHINGTON Sat Sep 26, 2009 11:14am EDT

The crew of a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter prepares to land near the village of Salavat in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province, September 24, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

The crew of a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter prepares to land near the village of Salavat in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province, September 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has submitted a request for more troops, a spokesman said Saturday, but the Pentagon will hold it while President Barack Obama decides what strategy to pursue.

General Stanley McChrystal hand delivered his long-awaited request to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, said spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis.

"At the end of that meeting General McChrystal did provide a copy of the force requirements to Admiral Mullen on the U.S. side and Admiral Stavridis on the NATO side," Sholtis said after McChrystal returned from the meeting at an air base in Germany.

In a bleak assessment prepared last month and leaked to the media in recent days, McChrystal wrote that his mission would likely fail if he is not given reinforcements for his force, now more than 100,000 strong, including about 63,000 Americans.

The additional troops would be needed as part of a complete overhaul of tactics, with new emphasis on securing civilians in population centers to loosen the grip of a strengthening Taliban-led insurgency.

The White House says it wants to review the entire strategy for the region before considering McChrystal's request.

"Right now the focus is on the strategic assessment itself. It (the troop request) will be shelved until such time that the White House is ready," a defense official said in Washington.

"It is not going to be addressed, or reviewed, or analyzed until the White House is ready to begin discussing it."

The official, who asked not to be identified while discussing the confidential review, said several White House meetings on strategy were scheduled for next week.

Officials have not said exactly how many extra troops McChrystal believes he needs, although defense and congressional officials have suggested the request could be for about 30,000.

The war has intensified in recent months. A U.N. report released Saturday said 1,500 civilians had died so far this year, with August the deadliest month of the year and August 20 -- election day -- seeing the largest number of attacks since 2001.

August and July have also been the deadliest months of the war for Western troops, who launched major advances.

Obama, who has already ordered 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan this year, has described himself as a "skeptical audience" of the case for sending more, and says he wants to be sure the strategy is correct first. Republican critics have reacted sharply to the delay, accusing him of dithering.

POLL SHOWS OPPOSITION TO EXTRA TROOPS

A Gallup poll published Friday showed a fall in support for the war, with 50 percent of Americans opposed to sending more troops, while 41 percent supported it. Obama said he understood the public's concerns.

"This is not easy and I would expect that the public would ask some very tough questions," he told a news conference at a summit of world leaders in Pittsburgh Friday. "That's exactly what I'm doing, is asking some tough questions."

Increasing evidence of fraud in last month's Afghan presidential election has made the case for sending more troops to protect the Afghan government more difficult to defend.

"What's most important is that there is a sense of legitimacy in Afghanistan among the Afghan people for their government," Obama said of the disputed election. "If there is not, that makes our task much more difficult."

In a quarterly U.N. report released Saturday, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said: "Serious electoral fraud occurred, made possible primarily -- but not exclusively -- by the lack of access to parts of the country owing to the ongoing conflict."

"When the entire electoral process is completed, it will be of critical importance for the result to be accepted by all so that the election of Afghanistan's future president can be certified and a new government can be formed," he added.

Preliminary results showed President Hamid Karzai winning in a single round with 54.6 percent of the vote, but if enough of his ballots are nullified because of fraud that he ends up with less than 50 percent, a second round must be held.

A U.N.-backed watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), has ordered a recount of some 3,000 polling stations, about 12 percent of the total, where it suspects fraud.

Afghanistan's election authorities and the ECC agreed this week to conduct the recount by studying ballots from a random sample of 10 percent of those suspicious polling stations, to speed up the process.

They hope to complete the recount and certify a result in the next two weeks so a second round, if needed, can be held before winter weather sets in.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

(Editing by Myra MacDonald)

(E-mail: peter.graff@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: peter.graff.reuters.com@reuters.net; Kabul newsroom: +93 799 335 284))

(If you have a query or comment about this story, send an e-mail to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com)

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