WASHINGTON – The Senate Armed Services chairman Friday added to mounting pressure on the White House to avoid escalating the war in Afghanistan by calling for faster training of Afghan security forces instead of sending more U.S. troops into combat.
A leading Senate Republican quickly countered that deploying more American troops to Iraq is what helped turn that war around.
The Senate panel's chairman, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, had earlier raised concerns about a possible new troop buildup. But his proposal Friday to focus the U.S. mission in Afghanistan more on training than fighting was a blunt warning to the Obama administration — and it came after other Democratic congressional leaders raised similar concerns this week.
Levin said the trainers would help build a "surge" of 400,000 Afghan army and police officers a year earlier than initially planned. The term "surge" is most recently associated with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq that helped bring the nation back from the brink of civil war.
"Our support of this surge of the Afghan security forces will show our commitment to the success of a mission that is clearly in our national security interests," Levin said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "But we would do so without creating a bigger U.S. military footprint, which provides propaganda fodder for the Taliban."
He added: "And we should implement these steps on an urgent basis, before we consider an increase in U.S. ground combat forces beyond what is already planned by the end of this year."
Levin did not immediately know how many trainers would be needed, and conceded that many would be U.S. military troops. He said more NATO forces should also help, a demand that came hours after Spain's government agreed to send 220 more troops to Afghanistan, raising their total to about 1,000.
Additionally, Levin said the U.S. needs to shift its trucks, weapons and other equipment still in Iraq to outfit the Afghan security forces. And he said more efforts need to be made to help reconcile local Taliban fighters — known as the "$10 Taliban" because they usually are hired for specific battles — with law-abiding forces.
Levin's comments came as the Obama administration weighs whether to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 he has approved to be there by the end of the year. Congressional leaders are expected to be briefed next week on a broad review of Afghanistan strategy recently sent to President Barack Obama by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also expected to request additional forces to address what he sees as shortfalls in the military's ability to deal with a rising threat from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. That would not necessarily mean more forces above the current 68,000, but might mean replacing some existing forces with others specializing in bomb detection and removal and medical response.
"Nothing has been decided but there are capabilities he believes need to be addressed," Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell said Friday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that no decision about troops is expected for "weeks and weeks" and likely will not come until after all the troops in the current ramp-up are in place and the situation can be evaluated with their presence.
"I think it will be many weeks of evaluation and assessment," Gibbs said.
Many military and diplomatic leaders have urged Obama to send thousands more Marines, soldiers and pilots to try to reverse Afghanistan's crumbling security. But leading Democrats in Congress have signaled they do not support a troop increase — especially on the heels of the bloodiest month in Afghanistan for U.S. troops so far.
Fifty-one U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in August, more than any other month since the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
Shortly after Levin finished outlining his plan, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he also believes training for the Afghan forces must be stepped up, and quickly. But he said a "significant" number of additional U.S. combat troops also must be sent to Afghanistan to clear out the Taliban and keep violent extremists from returning.
"I say with great respect that I've seen this movie before," McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel and a Vietnam War veteran, told The Associated Press. He said most Democrats also opposed the 2007 surge, but "they were wrong in Iraq and they are wrong now."
"I think there's significant fatigue and resistance to an increase in troops, McCain said of Congress. "But I saw that same fatigue when we ordered the surge, and it succeeded."