WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is nearing a decision to send more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year, but he may not announce it until after he consults with key allies and completes a trip to Asia later this month, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.
As it now stands, the administration's plan calls for sending three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. and a Marine brigade, for a total of as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.
Another 7,000 troops would man and support a new division headquarters for the international force's Regional Command (RC) South in Kandahar, the Taliban birthplace where the U.S. is due to take command in 2010. Some 4,000 additional U.S. trainers are likely to be sent as well, the officials said.
The first additional combat brigade probably would arrive in Afghanistan next March, the officials said, with the other three following at roughly three-month intervals, meaning that all the additional U.S. troops probably wouldn't be deployed until the end of next year. Army brigades number 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers; a Marine brigade has about 8,000 troops.
The plan would fall well short of the 80,000 troops that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, suggested as a "low-risk option" that would offer the best chance to contain the Taliban-led insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan.
It splits the difference between two other McChrystal options: a "high-risk" one that called for 20,000 additional troops and a "medium-risk" one that would add 40,000 to 45,000 troops.
The officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss internal administration planning, cautioned that Obama's decision isn't final, and won't be until after administration officials discuss it with the NATO allies at a Nov. 23 meeting of the alliance's North Atlantic Council and its Military Committee.
Coalition forces now include 67,000 U.S. and 42,000 troops from other countries. The Army's counterinsurgency manual estimates that an all-out counterinsurgency campaign in a country with Afghanistan's population would require about 600,000 troops.
Although the administration privately is holding out little hope of persuading Canada or the Netherlands to abandon their plans to withdraw combat troops, much less getting additional allied troops, it wants to avoid creating the impression - at home and abroad - that the U.S. "is going it alone" in Afghanistan, said one military official.
In an interview last week with The New York Times, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner complained that the American administration is leaving its NATO allies in the dark about its new strategy.
"What is the goal? What is the road? And in the name of what?" Kouchner asked, according to the Times. "Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem . . . . We need to talk to each other as allies."
The officials said that Obama also wants to complete his Nov. 11-19 Asia trip and a state visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, the arch foe of Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, before he announces his Afghanistan plan.
Administration officials also want time to launch a public relations offensive to convince an increasingly skeptical public and a wary Democratic Congress - which must agree to fund the administration's plan - that the war, now in its ninth year and inflicting rising casualties, is one of "necessity," as Obama said earlier this year.
"This is not going to be an easy sell, especially with the fight over health care and the (Democratic) party's losses" of the governors' mansions in New Jersey and Virginia last week, said one official.
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Generating public, congressional and international support for a troop increase will require heavy pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to crack down on endemic corruption and drug trafficking, surrender more power to provincial and local governments and improve public services, the officials said. Karzai won a second term last week when his first-round election opponent bowed out of a run-off.
"Another reason for the president to hold off for a bit on ordering more troops to Afghanistan is that we can tell Karzai that if he doesn't act firmly now, there won't be any support for a troop increase," said one official. "That has the added advantage of being true, and it's easier to hold off on sending more troops than it is to threaten to pull them out once they're there."
U.S. allies already have begun applying pressure. On Thursday, Kouchner called Karzai "corrupt," and the next day, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that if Karzai's government didn't attack corruption, international support against the Taliban-led insurgency would evaporate.
"Sadly, the government of Afghanistan had become a byword for corruption," Brown said in a speech. "And I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm's way for a government that does not stand up against corruption."
As McClatchy reported last week, the Obama administration has been quietly working with U.S. allies and Afghan officials on an "Afghanistan Compact," a package of reforms and anti-corruption measures that it hopes will boost popular support for Karzai and erase the doubts about his legitimacy raised by his fraud-tainted re-election.
The officials said that as of Friday, when Obama's top military advisers met for at least the seventh time to discuss the strategy in Afghanistan, the president had spent nearly 20 hours in meetings on Afghanistan. The planned troop increase may be his best hope to balance the competing political, economic and international pressures his administration is feeling.
Republicans have pressed for a decision, and many at the Pentagon and in conservative political circles argue that Obama, who has little experience in military affairs, should back his commander and send him whatever troops he's requested. The president, they note, called McChrystal the best general the military had to tackle Afghanistan when he appointed him to his post last summer.
Other military officers, particularly in the Army, warn that committing more troops to Afghanistan could risk "breaking" the force by reducing the time soldiers can spend at home between deployments, overtaxing equipment and destroying families. Those problems could worsen if Iraq's January elections are delayed or disrupted, and with them the administration's timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from that country.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, are urging Obama not to send more troops to Afghanistan. Some in his own administration, notably Vice President Joe Biden, aren't convinced that more troops would guarantee success and advocate instead more drone attacks and more training for Afghan forces.
Training Afghan troops, police and border guards, however, is proving to be a slow and frustrating process, hampered by corruption, illiteracy, ethnic rivalries and logistical problems, and carried out in the shadow of doubts about what kind of government the troops are serving.
Finally, Obama must reckon with domestic economic pressures. The unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in October, the highest since 1983, and there are growing fears that changes in the nation's health care system could send the federal budget deficit even higher.
Obama campaigned saying that he'd fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from the defense budget, but Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the Afghan war - which some administration officials privately concede could cost $700 billion to $1 trillion - might require a supplemental funding bill next year. Among the cost estimates the Pentagon is considering is $1 trillion over 10 years, two senior defense officials told McClatchy.
Because of these pressures, it's become "highly likely that the administration would send more troops," said Paul Pillar, the director of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University. "Then it is a matter of degree," particularly given the struggling U.S. economy.
For all the debate and deliberation, however, the proposed new deployments still may not answer the fundamental question about Afghanistan, Pillar said: Would a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan pose a threat to the United States?