Advocates of the 352,000 goal argue that slowing training or building a smaller force would have ceded valuable ground to the Taliban. “You have to start with a higher number of less-well-trained troops just to plug the hole in the dike,” said Mark Jacobson, a former top civilian adviser to McChrystal. “By the time you get those better-trained troops, it’s already over.”
But proponents of a smaller force contend it would have been better to have written off remote valleys instead of sending in ill-trained soldiers. “The army is so hollow that some of those units are just going to collapse,” the major said. “The Afghans would have been better off trying to hold on to only the most critical areas with fewer but stronger units.”
That now appears to be the direction U.S. commanders are heading. The White House and Pentagon have decided that the 352,000 will only be a “surge force” that will eventually be reduced to 228,500. The decision has prompted unease among senior U.S. commanders and protests from Levin, McCain and other congressional supporters of a large Afghan army. The Obama administration has billed it as a cost-saving move, but some U.S. officials see another motivation.