Tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers may soon be needed in Afghanistan to quell the raging Taliban insurgency, top American generals are preparing to tell President Barack Obama.
A spate of apparently deliberate leaks - seemingly aimed at preparing public opinion for a second "surge" involving as many as three or four more brigades or 20,000-plus soldiers and Marines - culminated yesterday with several reports saying General Stanley McChrystal, who took command of U.S. and NATO forces in June, wants lots more troops.
The politically unpalatable news comes at the end of the bloodiest month in the bloodiest year since 2001 for U.S. and other foreign forces battling a resurgent Taliban, and on the same day the United Nations grimly warned that civilian casualties among war-weary Afghans soared this year.
As U.S. soldiers and Marines continue to pour into Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, Gen. McChrystal also wants a fundamental shift in strategy. Instead of the intermittent patrolling from static bases, the general, who played a major role in U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, wants small units to stay and live in Afghan villages and hamlets.
That will require vastly greater numbers of forces - both foreign and Afghan - than have been deployed since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
But Gen. McChrystal's counter-insurgency needs may face tough political hurdles in Washington. After approving more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops earlier this year, Mr. Obama said, "My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops."
However, Gen. McChrystal, sent to Afghanistan in June, was given clear marching orders to both make some quick progress in winning the war and - equally importantly - to curtail air strikes. Although tactically vital to allied troops, the few air strikes that go wrong and kill Afghan civilians - sometimes scores of them - become widely known and disproportionately damage the image of U.S. and allied forces among ordinary Afghans.
Afghanistan remains a potential quagmire for the new President.
Mr. Obama - who has made Afghanistan his war - has already nearly doubled U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan to nearly 70,000.
Coupled with more than 30,000 NATO forces - including more than 2,000 Canadians embattled in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar - there are now roughly the same number of allied foreign forces in Afghanistan as there were Soviet forces during Moscow's failed 10-year war to subjugate Afghanistan.
However, sending even more troops to Afghanistan will be a tough political sell for the President, especially as there is a stubborn perception in Congress and among ordinary Americans that many of the NATO allies are shirking the fight by keeping their troops far from the combat zones in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Preparing the political ground for an expected additional troop request from Gen. McChrystal began earlier this week when several key Washington analysts publicly suggested another surge would be needed.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested several more brigades - he declined to be more specific - might be needed. A U.S. army brigade numbers between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers and includes air support.
"This war has been fought without resources, but above all without realism," said Mr. Cordesman, whose comments carried even greater than usual weight because he was just back from Afghanistan, where he had been part of a specially assembled team called in to advise the new commander.
He also called for a doubling of the size of Afghan forces - currently targeted to reach 140,000, although still far short of that in actual combat-capable numbers.
"We, the United States, are going to have to provide the resources if we want to win," Mr. Cordesman said.
Some military analysts have suggested that more than half a million soldiers and police - including U.S., NATO and Afghan forces - will be needed to defeat the Taliban insurgency and provide a modicum of security across Afghanistan, a country of 23 million that is larger, more rugged and remote, and far less developed than Iraq.
Another of the experts who recently toured Afghanistan at Gen. McChrystal's invitation was Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. He too believes more troops will be needed but stressed that the corrupt and inept Afghan government must also change.
"We can keep the patient on life support by providing security assistance indefinitely, but if you don't get an improvement in governance, you'll never be able to take the patient off the ventilator," he said in an interview posted by the council.
Meanwhile, as pressure for more U.S. troops mounts, the Obama administration is facing the reality that several NATO allies - including Canada and Holland - have already set exit dates for their combat commitments, irrespective of whether the war is over.
In Ottawa, Alain Pellerin, a retired army colonel and executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations, said he expected the Americans might send another "three to five extra brigades" to Afghanistan.
Mr. Pellerin said the Canadian government's often-repeated pledge that the Canadian combat mission will end in 2011 is likely to be kept, but added that there will be a "new debate about the Canadian role, not necessarily because of American pressure."
He suggested as many as 1,000 Canadian troops might remain in Kandahar, perhaps as trainers or to provide security for the provincial reconstruction team, long after the 2011 exit date for combat operations.
"I think the Americans would want the Canadians to remain in Kandahar, which is vital ground to any victory or success."