WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials are quietly considering a significant change in the war command in Afghanistan to extend U.S. control of forces into the country's volatile south. The idea is partly linked to an expectation of a fresh infusion of U.S. combat troops in the south next year.
Taliban resistance has stiffened in the south since NATO took command there in mid-2006, and some in the Bush administration believe the fight against the Taliban could be strengthened if the U.S., whose span of control is now limited to eastern Afghanistan, were also in charge in part or all of the south.
The internal discussions about expanding the U.S. command role were described in recent Associated Press interviews with several senior defense officials who have direct knowledge but were not authorized to talk about it publicly. All said they thought it unlikely that a decision would be made anytime soon.
Giving the U.S. more control in the south would address one problem cited by U.S. officials: the NATO allies' practice of rotating commanders every nine months -- and their fighting units every six months, in some cases. The 101st Airborne, by comparison, is in eastern Afghanistan on a 15-month deployment. In the U.S. view, nine-month commands are too short to maximize effectiveness.
U.S. combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq are to shrink to 12 months starting in August.
The idea of changing the command structure has not yet developed into a proposal to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The internal discussions reflect concern at a lack of continuity among NATO forces and a view that, in the long run, NATO may be better off focusing mainly on areas of Afghanistan, like the north and west, where there is less fighting but a great need for noncombat aid.
Changing the command structure to give a U.S. general more control in the south would, in effect, mark a partial "re-Americanization" of the combat mission. That could be politically controversial, given U.S. interests in maintaining close ties with NATO in fighting terrorism.
NATO now has overall responsibility for the mission in Afghanistan, and that would not change if a U.S. general were to be put in charge in the southern sector. But it would give the Americans a greater degree of control.
Settling the command issue has implications not only for the success of the overall mission in Afghanistan but also for the NATO allies' willingness to join with the U.S. in future military ventures beyond Europe's borders.
The defense officials doubted a decision would be made before fall and possibly not until a new administration takes office in 2009. Two officials said there appears to be no high-level advocate for making such a change in the near term, although there is growing concern that while higher U.S. troop levels in Iraq have helped reduce violence there, the trends in Afghanistan are less positive.
In the meantime, as an interim step, there are plans to beef up the NATO command headquarters in southern Afghanistan with additional NATO and U.S. staff, one senior official said.
There are now about 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the most at any time during the war, which began in October 2001. They include 3,400 Marines who arrived this month as reinforcements for combat missions in the south and to help train Afghan security forces. Those Marines are scheduled to leave in October, but if replacements are not offered by NATO allies soon the Pentagon likely will either extend the Marines' deployment or tap another unit to fill the void.
At a NATO summit in early April, President Bush told the allies the United States would send many more troops to Afghanistan in 2009. He mentioned no numbers, but US commanders say they need at least two more brigades, or 7,500 troops.
In early stages of the war, the US military commanded forces across Afghanistan. NATO's security role initially was limited to heading an International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Kabul, the capital; but it spread, starting in 2004 -- first to the north, then west and, in 2006, to the south and the east.
The overall ISAF commander is an American general, Daniel McNeill, but the only sector headed by a US general is the eastern area, where the 101st Airborne is in charge. If the southern sector were to be put under US command, the American in charge there would still be subordinate to NATO.
Last week Gates was asked at a news conference if he expects any changes in the command structure.
"If there were to be any discussion of changes in the command structure, it would require some pretty intensive consultations with our allies and discussion about what makes sense going forward," Gates replied. "There have been no such consultations so far."
The Pentagon chief acknowledged, however, that the subject has been talks about internally.
"I've made no decisions," he said. "I've made no recommendations to the president. We're still discussing it."
The topic is politically sensitive. A U.S. move to limit NATO's role in the south, where the alliance has taken its heaviest casualties over the past two years, could be seen by the allies as implying U.S. superiority. It could be seen in the same light as Gates' comments to the Los Angeles Times in January about the NATO allies not being as well trained as US forces to fight an insurgency. Those remarks were seen in some European capitals as a slap, which Gates said was not his intent.
A new twist may be added with Bush's decision to nominate Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to head Central Command, which is responsible not only for U.S. operations in Iraq but also Afghanistan. Petraeus will have a chance to air his views on the troop-command issue in the south when he testifies at his Senate confirmation hearing, possibly before the end of May.
David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from October 2003 to May 2005, says the U.S. command structure is not being used to its full potential. He said in congressional testimony April 2 that the U.S. two-star headquarters at Bagram air base north of Kabul, the capital, is capable of "a broad counterinsurgency fight all across southern Afghanistan."
In an interview Monday, Barno said the Europeans did not get what they expected when NATO agreed to extend its reach in 2006 from the less-volatile north and west into the south, where it looked then like a mission focused more on economic reconstruction and humanitarian aid than on combat.
"NATO came into Afghanistan under one set of expectations and now is faced with a very different reality, and that's not playing well politically at home -- not terribly well with many of the governments but even less well with the populations in many countries," Barno said.
Among the NATO nations fighting in the south are Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. A Canadian general is commander of the southern region now and he is scheduled to be replaced by a Dutch general later this year, part of a rotational pattern that Barno and some senior Pentagon officials believe gives the commander and his staff too little time on the ground to be fully effective.