Obama to Unveil his Afghan Plan Next Week

WASHINGTON ~ US President Barack Obama will announce his new Afghan strategy in an address to the nation next Tuesday from the prestigious West Point military academy, the White House said.

In a defining moment for his young presidency, Obama is widely expected to order more than 30,000 additional American troops into battle against an emboldened Taliban-led insurgency.

But the president, who vowed Tuesday to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, will also lay out an exit strategy for withdrawing forces from the war begun eight years ago in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States.

“We are in year nine of our efforts in Afghanistan. We are not going to be there another eight or nine years,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Obama will give his address at 8pm on Tuesday at the elite US Army officer school in New York state, capping weeks of deliberations inside his administration.

Gibbs was unable to say if Obama had made a final decision on how many more US troops to send, but officials speaking anonymously have put the likely figure at between 30,000 and 35,000 – less than the 40,000 boost sought by the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

“Throughout this process, the president has repeatedly pushed and prodded, not simply for how we are going to get a certain number of troops in, but what is the strategy, what has to be implemented ultimately to get them out,” Gibbs said.

“Throughout these meetings, you heard the president say this: ‘We are not going to be there forever.'”

The United States has some 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, bearing by far the largest share of the burden of the fight against the Taliban and remnants of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

NATO allies, whose 42,000-strong contribution swells the number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to about 110,000, are due to consider sending more troops at gatherings of the military alliance December 3-4 and on December 7.

The Pentagon has called on NATO to follow Obama’s announcement by stumping up more troops, but expectations of significant numbers of reinforcements from America’s allies are low.

NATO cautioned on Wednesday that a small group of heavyweights, led by Germany, could wait until after a new international conference on Afghanistan, tentatively set for January either in London or Kabul, before committing more resources.

“There are real questions in our publics about the way forward, politically and not just militarily,” said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.

Britain has suggested a further NATO deployment of around 5,000 troops on top of the US surge, but such figures may be hard to achieve with partners like France vowing not to send another soldier.

The Italian government said Obama had called Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Wednesday to ask for Italy’s support in strengthening its 3,250-strong mission in Afghanistan. It offered no immediate response.

The unpopularity of the war has increased as Obama has lingered over his four-month strategy review and as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has drawn mounting international pressure to battle corruption in his government.

The top US military commander, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned in September that he considered the Afghan government’s credibility problems at home to be a menace “equal to the threat from the Taliban.”

Gibbs said Obama will stress on Tuesday the need for “a new chapter in Afghan governance,” putting further pressure on Karzai to clamp down on any corruption in his administration.

With 2009 by far the deadliest year for foreign troops in Afghanistan, critics of sending reinforcements portray the mission as unnecessary and unwinnable, warning it has begun to resemble the fiasco of the Vietnam War.

A USA Today/Gallup poll released on Wednesday showed rising pessimism among the US public, with only 35 percent approving of Obama’s handling of the conflict, down from 56 percent four months ago.

Americans are divided on whether to dispatch more US troops, with half of those surveyed backing escalation while 39 percent said it was time to begin withdrawing forces.

Obama also faces pressure in the US Congress from Democratic allies who see the war’s cost as sucking hundreds of billions from much-needed projects at home.

Apart from the human toll, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost US$768.8 billion so far and by the end of this fiscal year, the price tag will approach $1 trillion.

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