WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- An assessment by the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan that more forces are needed has won public backing from the military's top leaders, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has yet to decide on next steps, officials said.
How to move forward in Afghanistan has sparked an intense debate and put a spotlight on what congressional critics see as a rift between some of the nation's top military and civilian leaders as U.S. public opinion has turned against the war.
President Barack Obama, who has described himself as a "skeptical audience" when it comes to sending more troops, has launched a broad review of his 6-month-old counterinsurgency strategy. Officials said the White House was considering options besides a large increase in the number of troops.
The top commander in Afghanistan who authored the confidential war assessment, General Stanley McChrystal, rejected any suggestion that his findings had driven a wedge between the military and the Obama administration, telling "The New York Times" in an interview that "a policy debate is warranted."
In his assessment, leaked on September 21, McChrystal said the mission was likely to fail without additional troops, and set out urgent steps that he wants taken to reverse Taliban gains, from expanding the size of Afghan security forces to improving governance by an Afghan government widely seen as corrupt.
"Obviously I endorsed, the chairman endorsed...General McChrystal's assessment and description," the head of the U.S. Central Command, Army General David Petraeus, told a counterinsurgency conference in Washington.
Petraeus, whose Central Command oversees wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was referring to himself and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. A Mullen aide confirmed that Mullen and the Joint Chiefs had endorsed the assessment.
The position of Gates, who voiced concerns in the past about a larger troop "footprint" but has said more recently that some of them had been addressed, could be pivotal to Obama's decision. The Pentagon said Gates remained undecided.
'Thinking Still Evolving'
"Perhaps unlike some others who are involved in this process, his view ultimately on more troops is still a work in progress," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told a news conference before Petraeus spoke.
"His thinking is still evolving. He has not come to a final determination on what he believes to be the best way forward. That's just where he is," he said of Gates.
The Pentagon said McChrystal would submit his troop request to Gates before the end of the week. Morrell said Gates would then "hold onto it until such time as the president and his national security team are ready to consider it."
"It is simply premature to consider additional resources until General McChrystal's assessment has been fully reviewed and discussed by the president and his team. That process is under way," Morrell said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said the current debate over how to proceed was normal and also took place when the Bush White House was considering a troop surge in Iraq in 2007 to stem violence.
"It is just part of our system," he said. "You can't talk meaningfully about troop numbers or increases until the goals are clearly defined."
McChrystal had initially been urged by the Pentagon to hold off on sending the troop request to Washington, drawing fire from Republican Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama last year.
With U.S. and NATO combat deaths in Afghanistan soaring, some key members of Obama's own Democratic Party oppose a troop increase.
As part of its strategy review, the administration is considering options ranging from increasing U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to stepping up aerial attacks on Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, officials said.
White House officials point to last month's fraud-marred presidential election in Afghanistan and U.S. questions about the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's government, and question whether the administration's current counterinsurgency strategy can still work.
Petraeus said the vote "so far does not appear that it's going to produce a government with greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people," but he said fraud investigations should be allowed to run their course.
There already are more than 100,000 troops from the United States and NATO allies in Afghanistan.
McChrystal was expected to recommend sending at least 30,000 more troops, but officials said the White House's strategy rethink could force him to revise his request.