US 'to send 34,000 more troops to Afghanistan'
Barack Obama: Reports say he will announce the deployment of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Barack Obama is expected to send 34,000 more US troops to Afghanistan when he unveils his long-awaited strategy for the Afghan conflict next Tuesday, US media reports said today.
The Politico website said the US president would make a prime time address to the American people to announce his plans for what he has described as "a war of necessity".
Just as significant as the number of troops, however, will be pointers to a US exit strategy – something that will be closely watched by the British government, which is under public pressure to withdraw 9,000 UK troops from Afghanistan.
The McClatchy news service reported that the White House plan contained "off-ramps" – points, starting as early as next June, at which Obama could decide to continue to increase troop numbers, halt deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting", depending on political and military progress.
The US currently has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with 42,000 from other countries, as the conflict there enters its ninth year.
Obama reportedly plans to announce the deployment over nine months, beginning in March, of three army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, as well as a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.
In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of US-led Nato forces in southern Afghanistan – a move to which the US has long been committed – while 4,000 US military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate expansion of the Afghan army and police.
The US president drew up his final plans following a high level strategy meeting yesterday, the ninth he has held on Afghanistan.
The US vice president, Joe Biden – who favours a smaller force to concentrate on tackling al-Qaida – the national security adviser, Jim Jones, the US ambassador to Afghanisan, Karl Eikenberry, who opposes sending more troops, and senior US military commanders took part in the talks.
Obama is expected to follow up his decision with meetings on Capitol Hill aimed at winning congressional support amid opposition by some Democrats, who fear the US is heading for a Vietnam-like quagmire.
Officials told McClatchy that the commander of the US-led international force in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal – who asked for 40,000 more troops – could arrive in Washington as early as Sunday to testify before Congress towards the end of next week.
The defence secretary, Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Eikenberry are also expected to appear before congressional committees.
As part of its plan the Obama administration, which remains sceptical about the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, would "work around him" by engaging directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior US defence official told McClatchy.
The plan adopted by Obama would fall well short of the 80,000 troops McChrystal suggested in August as a "low-risk option" that would offer the best chance to contain the Taliban-led insurgency.
It splits the difference between two other McChrystal options – a "high-risk" approach calling for 20,000 additional troops and a "medium-risk" option that would add 40,000 to 45,000.
During a visit to China last week Obama said his goal in Afghanistan was to hand a clean slate to America's next president.
He said he did not want his successor to inherit the conflict because a "multi-year occupation" would not serve US interests.