Obama rolls out Afghan war strategy

BARACK OBAMA has begun one of the toughest sales jobs of his presidency, launching the much-awaited roll-out of his Afghan war strategy by informing top military and civilian advisers in Washington and Kabul and telephoning key allies around the globe.

Obama is outlining his decision to an increasingly sceptical US public tonight in a nationally broadcast address. The strategy will include deploying thousands more American forces to Afghanistan, clarifying why the US is fighting the war and laying out a path toward disengagement.

He first told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton his decision by phone on Sunday afternoon, and then informed other key administration advisers such as Defence Secretary Robert Gates in an early evening Oval Office meeting.

It was at that time, said spokesman Robert Gibbs, that Obama’s order for the military to go ahead with the new deployments became official. The goal of the president’s revamped approach is to train Afghan security forces eventually to take over from the US, and Obama will say tonight that he doesn’t intend to allow an open-ended US commitment, the spokesman said.

Immediately after the Sunday session, the president called Army General Stanley McChrystal, his top commander in Afghanistan, and the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Yesterday, Obama also began a series of calls to foreign leaders, starting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and followed later in the day by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The leaders were getting an overview of the new policy, but not specific troop numbers, Gibbs said.

The president planned to speak last night with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari before his speech.

In Congress, Democrats already are setting tough conditions – if not outright opposition to a deeper US involvement – and the American public is increasingly negative about the eight-year-old conflict that has become a serious drain on US resources in a deeply troubled economic period. Casualties have increased sharply and are likely to grow more with the addition of more troops.

Another facet of Obama’s plan appears to be an expanded partnership with Pakistan as part of US pressure on that country’s shaky government to do more to root out extremists based along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan.

The Washington Post reported yesterday thatObama had sent a letter to Zardari saying the US planned no early withdrawal from Afghanistan and will increase its military and economic co-operation with Pakistan. The Post, quoting unidentified administration officials, also said Obama called for closer collaboration against extremist groups, including five named in the letter.

Obama is expected to announce an increase of up to 35,000 US forces to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency and stabilise a weak Afghan government. The escalation, which would take place over the next year, would put more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan at an annual cost of about $75 billion (€50bn).

Meanwhile, Britain will send 500 more soldiers to Afghanistan in December as part of a broader surge in NATO-led troop levels to tackle worsening violence and train Afghan forces, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said yesterday, taking Britain’s forces to 9,500.

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