Official: Afghan buildup involves 30,000 troops
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the first as early as Christmas, on an accelerated timetable with an endgame in sight, The Associated Press has learned.
In his prime-time speech to the nation Tuesday night at West Point, Obama also will lay out a rough timeframe, including some dates, for when the main U.S. military mission will end, said a senior administration official who spoke on grounds of anonymity.
The main role of the new troops will be to reverse Taliban gains and secure population centers in the volatile south and east parts of the country.
The 30,000 new troops will bring the total in Afghanistan to more than 100,000 U.S. forces.
New infusions of U.S. Marines will begin moving into Afghanistan almost as soon as President Barack Obama announces a redrawn battle strategy. All of the new troops are expected to be in place by next summer.
Obama will try to sell a skeptical public on his bigger, costlier war plan by coupling the large new troop infusion with an emphasis on stepped-up training for Afghan forces that he says will allow the U.S. to leave.
The new infusion of troops had been envisioned to take place over a year, or even more, because force deployments in Iraq and elsewhere make it logistically difficult, if not impossible, to go faster. But Obama directed his military planners to make the changes necessary to speed up the Afghanistan additions, said the official, who declined to be publicly identified because the formal announcement of details was still pending.
Military officials said at least one group of Marines is expected to deploy within two or three weeks of Obama’s announcement, and would be in Afghanistan by Christmas. Larger deployments wouldn’t be able to follow until early in 2010.
The initial infusion is a recognition by the administration that something tangible needs to happen quickly, officials said. The quick addition of Marines would provide badly needed reinforcements to those fighting against Taliban gains in the southern Helmand province, and could lend reassurance to both Afghans and a war-weary U.S. public.
Obama also insisted that a specific withdrawal scenario be built into the process of adding new forces.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a TV interview Tuesday that Obama would lay out an endgame for U.S. involvement.
“We want to – as quickly as possible – transition the security of the Afghan people over to those national security forces in Afghanistan,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” ”This can’t be nation-building. It can’t be an open-ended forever commitment.”
Officials were not specific on the withdrawal date that Obama has in mind nor the changes the military will be required to make to get the troop deployments on the president’s timeline.
Obama formally ends a 92-day review of the war with a nationally broadcast address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
He began rolling out his decision Sunday night, informing key administration officials, military advisers and foreign allies in a series of private meetings and phone calls that stretched into Monday.
Obama’s announcement comes near the end of a year in which the war has worsened despite Obama’s previous infusion of 21,000 forces.
But the numbers of fresh troops don’t tell the whole story, Gibbs said Tuesday. “It’s what their mission is,” he told ABC. “We’re going to accelerate going after al-Qaida and its extremist allies. We’ll accelerate the training of an Afghan national security force, a police and an army.”
In Kabul, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the new head of a U.S.-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops, to be reached by Oct. 31, 2010, no fixed higher target is set.
There is a notional goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change.
“Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it’s not a hard, firm, fixed number,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
He indicated that one reason for avoiding a hard-and-fast commitment to those higher numbers is the expected cost. So his orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. He intends to hold annual reviews, beginning next spring or early summer, to determine whether the notional higher targets of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police – for a combined total of 400,000 by 2013 – are still the right goals for Afghanistan.
“If you grow it up to 400,000 – if you did grow all the way to that number, and if it was required to help bring greater security to this country – then of course you have to sustain it at that level, too, in terms of the cost of maintaining a force that size,” he said. Nearly all the cost of building Afghan forces has been borne by the U.S. and other countries thus far.
Obama also will deliver a deeper explanation of why the U.S. must continue to fight more than eight years after the war’s start, emphasizing that Afghan security forces need more time, more schooling and more U.S. combat backup to be up to the job on their own. He will make tougher demands on the governments of Pakistan and, especially, Afghanistan, and will provide a fresh path toward disengagement.
With U.S. casualties in Afghanistan sharply increasing and little sign of progress, the war Obama once liked to call one “of necessity,” not choice, has grown less popular with the public and within his own Democratic party. In recent days, leading Democrats have talked of setting tough conditions on deeper U.S. involvement, or even staging outright opposition.
The displeasure on both sides of the aisle was likely to be on display when congressional hearings on Obama’s strategy get under way later in the week on Capitol Hill.
Obama was spending much of Monday and Tuesday on the phone, outlining his plan – minus many specifics – for the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China, India, Denmark, Poland and others. He also met in person at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
A briefing for dozens of key lawmakers was planned for Tuesday afternoon, just before Obama was set to leave the White House for the speech against a military backdrop at West Point.
The Afghan government said Tuesday that President Hamid Karzai and Obama had an hourlong video conference. Obama was also going to speak with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
In Afghanistan, rampant government corruption and inefficiency have made U.S. success much harder. Obama was expected to place tough conditions on Karzai’s government, along with endorsing a stepped-up training program for the Afghan armed forces along the outline recommended this fall by U.S. trainers.
That schedule would expand the Afghan army to 134,000 troops by next fall, three years earlier than once envisioned.
Military officials said the speech is expected to include several references to Iraq, where the United States still has more than 100,000 forces. The strain of maintaining that overseas war machine has stretched the Army and Marine Corps and limited Obama’s options.