WASHINGTON – Barack Obama has begun one of the toughest sales jobs of his presidency, launching the much-awaited rollout of his new Afghan war strategy by informing top U.S. military and civilian advisers in Washington and Kabul and telephoning key allies around the globe.
Obama is outlining his decision to an increasingly skeptical U.S. public on Tuesday night in a nationally broadcast television address from the U.S. Military Academy. The strategy will include deploying thousands more American forces to Afghanistan, clarifying why the U.S. is fighting the war and laying out a path toward disengagement.
In his speech, Obama was expected to announce an increase of up to 35,000 more U.S. forces to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency and stabilize 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.
Obama is also expected to outline an exit strategy for the war.
He first told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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 to eventually take over from the U.S., and Obama will say Tuesday that he doesn’t intend to allow an open-ended U.S. commitment, the spokesman said.
Immediately after the Sunday session, the president called Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his top commander in Afghanistan, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. On Monday, Obama also began a series of calls to foreign leaders, starting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to be 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 plans to speak with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari before his speech, most likely Monday night, Gibbs added.
In Congress, Democrats already are setting tough conditions – if not outright opposition to a deeper U.S. involvement – and the American public is increasingly negative about the 8-year-old conflict that has become a serious drain on U.S. resources in a deeply troubled economic period. Casualties have increased sharply and are likely to grow more with the addition of more troops.
Congressional uneasiness or opposition was voiced Sunday by the leading Senate Democrat on military matters, who said any plan to significantly expand U.S. troop levels must show how those reinforcements will help increase the number of Afghan security forces.
Remarks by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, were a preview of the possible roadblocks as the president begins to sell a broader, more expensive battle plan for Afghanistan to an American public weary of the conflict.
Greater numbers of Afghan army and police are central to succeeding in the war, according to Levin, and more U.S. trainers and an infusion of battlefield gear will help meet that goal. But Levin said that it’s not clear what role the tens of thousands of additional U.S. combat troops would play in that buildup, and he said Obama has to make a compelling case for it on Tuesday.
“The key here is an Afghan surge, not an American surge,” Levin said. “We cannot, by ourselves, win (the) war.”
Another facet of Obama’s plan appears to be an expanded partnership with Pakistan as part of U.S. 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 Monday that Obama had sent a letter to Zardari saying the U.S. 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 that Obama called for closer collaboration against extremist groups, including five named in the letter.
The letter, delivered by national security adviser James Jones, reportedly included a blunt warning that the U.S. would not tolerate support within Pakistan’s military and intelligence operations of extremists fighting in Afghanistan.
Democrats concerned over the price tag have proposed a war tax to pay for operations. Rep. David Obey, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has introduced legislation to impose a war surtax beginning in 2011. The bill would exempt service members and their families.
“If this war is important enough to engage in the long term, it’s important enough to pay for,” Obey said.
McChrystal wants an overall Afghan security force of 400,000 – 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police officers – by October 2013.
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