Obama to accelerate campaign in Afghanistan

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama was last night expected to announce he would send 30,000-34,000 more troops to Afghanistan over six months, an accelerated timetable – with an endgame built in – that would have the first marines there by Christmas.

With the full complement of new troops expected to be in Afghanistan by next summer, the heightened pace of Obama’s military deployment in the eight-year-old war appears to mimic the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, a 20,000-strong force addition under former President George W Bush. Similar in strategy to that mission, Obama’s Afghan surge aims to reverse gains by Taliban insurgents and to secure population centres in the volatile south and east parts of the country.

In a prime-time speech to the American people at 1.00am this morning from West Point that ends a 92-day review, Obama sought to help sell his much bigger, costlier war plan by tying the escalation to an exit strategy.

By laying out a rough timeframe and some dates for when the main US military mission would end, as well as emphasising stepped-up training for Afghan forces, the president was acknowledging the increasingly divided public opinion over continued US participation in the stalemated war.

“We want to – as quickly as possible – transition the security of the Afghan people over to those national security forces in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC’s Good Morning America yesterday. “This can’t be nation-building. It can’t be an open-ended forever commitment.”

With US 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 US 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.

In meetings overseas in the coming days, Obama also will ask NATO allies to contribute more – between 5,000 and 10,000 new troops – to the separate international force in Afghanistan, diplomats said.

One official from a European nation said the troop figure was included in an official NATO document compiled on the basis of information received from Washington ahead of Obama’s announcement. The NATO force in Afghanistan now stands at around 40,000 troops.

The 30,000 new US troops will bring the total in Afghanistan to more than 100,000 US forces by next summer. Fresh infusions of US Marines will begin moving into Afghanistan almost as soon as Obama announces a new strategy.

The president’s troop increase 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 hasten the Afghanistan additions, said an official, who declined to be publicly identified because a formal announcement of details was still pending.

Officials were not specific on the withdrawal date that Obama had in mind nor the changes the military will be required to make to get the troop deployments into Afghanistan on the president’s new, speedier timeline.

Military officials said at least one group of marines is expected to deploy within two or three weeks, and would be in Afghanistan by Christmas. This initial infusion is a recognition by the administration that something tangible needs to happen quickly, military officials said.

The new marines would provide badly-needed reinforcements to those fighting against Taliban gains in the southern Helmand province. They also could lend reassurance to both Afghans and a war-weary US public.

Obama’s announcement comes near the end of a year in which the war has worsened despite the president’s infusion of 21,000 forces earlier this year. He began rolling out his decision last Sunday night, informing key administration officials, military advisers and foreign allies in a series of private meetings and phone calls that stretched into Monday.

Previewing a narrative the president was likely to stress, Gibbs told ABC that the number of fresh troops don’t tell the whole story. Obama was to emphasise that Afghan security forces need more time, more schooling and more US combat backup to be up to the job on their own.

“We’ll accelerate the training of an Afghan national security force, a police and an army,” Gibbs said.

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