WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan on an accelerated timetable that will have the first Marines there as early as Christmas and all forces in place by summer. But he’ll also declare Tuesday night that troops will start leaving in 19 months.
In a prime-time speech from West Point, New York, that ends a three-month review, Obama will seek to sell his bigger, costlier plan for the 8-year-old stalemated war to a skeptical public in part by twinning it with some specifics about an exit strategy, said two senior administration officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the president had not yet laid out his plans.
Obama will tell the American people that U.S. troops will start leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, one official said. The official said the president will not specify a date for the end of the war.
The remarks to academy cadets to be broadcast live to the country could become a defining moment of the Obama presidency and a gamble that could weigh heavily on Obama’s chances for a second White House term.
Obama hopes to restore support for the war effort among an American public grown increasingly pessimistic about success and some fellow Democrats in Congress wary of — or even outright opposed to — spending billions more taxpayer dollars and putting tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers and Marines in harm’s way.
A third senior U.S. official said the president will lay out an ambitious calendar for the arrival of the full measure of additional forces over the first six months of 2010, although the actual arrivals may stretch out a couple of months beyond that.
Obama will acknowledge that the arrivals will come faster than once planned, the official said, a nod to the urgency that the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan laid out bluntly at the start of Obama’s three months of deliberations.
The officials said that the primary mission of the additional forces will be to target the Taliban-led insurgency and protect the Afghan population, as well as improve the U.S. ability to train Afghan security forces to do more on their own.
The additions will bring U.S. forces above 100,000 by next summer. If the timeline holds, it will require a costly logistical scramble to bring in so many people and so much equipment almost entirely by air. It will also probably require breaking at least an implicit promise to some soldiers who had thought they would have more than 12 months at home before their next deployment.
With U.S. casualties in Afghanistan sharply increasing and little sign of progress from the war’s beginning in 2001, the war Obama has called 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.
Obama is acknowledging the divided public opinion with his emphasis on an exit, as well as on stepped-up training to help Afghan forces take over and a series of specific demands for other governments, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO allies, to contribute more.
Unease with Obama’s approach to the war is sure to be on display when congressional hearings begin this week.
With the full complement of new troops expected to be in Afghanistan next summer, the heightened pace of Obama’s military deployment appears to mimic the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, a 20,000-strong force addition under 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 his speech and 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 from information received from Washington ahead of Obama’s announcement. The NATO force in Afghanistan now stands at around 40,000 troops.
Obama also will make tougher demands on the governments of Pakistan and, especially, Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, rampant government corruption and inefficiency have made U.S. success much harder. The Afghan government said Tuesday that President Hamid Karzai and Obama had an hourlong video conference. Obama spoke Tuesday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
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 U.S. public.
Obama’s announcement comes near the end of a year in which the war has worsened despite the president’s earlier infusion of 21,000 forces.
Previewing a narrative the president is likely to stress, press secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC that the number of fresh troops don’t tell the whole story. Obama will emphasize that Afghan security forces need more time, more schooling and more U.S. combat backup to be up to the job on their own.
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 the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. But, he said, no fixed higher target is set.
There is a general goal of eventually fielding 240,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said in a telephone interview with the AP that that could change depending on reviews beginning next spring or early next summer.
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.