Obama May Add 30,000 Troops in Afghanistan
By Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt
New York Times, Nov. 25, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that he was determined to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, and his aides signaled to allies that he would send as many as 25,000 to 30,000 additional American troops there even as they cautioned that the final number remained in flux.
The White House said Mr. Obama had completed his consultations with his war council on Monday night and would formally announce his decision in a national address in the next week, probably on Tuesday.
At a news conference in the East Room with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, Mr. Obama suggested that his approach would break from the policies he had inherited from the Bush administration and said that the goals would be to keep Al Qaeda from using the region to launch more attacks against the United States and to bring more stability to Afghanistan.
“After eight years — some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done — it is my intention to finish the job,” he said.
He said that he would outline his Afghanistan strategy after Thanksgiving, adding, “I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we’re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive.”
Though he and his advisers have drawn up benchmarks to measure progress and put pressure on the Afghan government to do its part, Mr. Obama offered no details in his public remarks on Tuesday. He was also silent on precisely what would constitute finishing the job in Afghanistan or how soon he envisioned being able to begin extricating the United States from the war there.
While the troop levels he orders will go a long way toward defining his position, the White House has stressed that Mr. Obama’s review has gone far beyond the numbers to better define the military and civilian-aid components of the effort in Afghanistan, how they fit into efforts to combat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and how to ensure that the American commitment in the region is not open-ended.
At the meeting on Monday night, Mr. Obama went around the table in the White House Situation Room asking his senior advisers for summations of their individual assessments and to voice any concerns they still had, said an administration official who was briefed on the two-hour meeting.
“There was a lot of back and forth,” said the official, with Mr. Obama interjecting questions and top aides cutting each other off at times. When the meeting finished shortly after 10 p.m., some of the senior advisers lingered in small groups to continue their discussions, said the official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the meeting’s confidentiality.
The meeting covered a wide variety of issues, including benchmarks to measure progress by Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the specific number of additional American troops to send.
Although his aides told some allies that the troop increase would most likely be slightly below 30,000 — there are currently 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan — several officials said Mr. Obama did not appear completely settled on a final number.
“He’s still not happy,” one official said.
One reason for Mr. Obama’s disquiet might be discontent among the members of his own party on Capitol Hill over the prospect of escalating the war and paying for it. Among those present at Monday night’s session was Peter R. Orszag, the White House budget director.
Before a meeting with Mr. Obama on Tuesday afternoon, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said during a conference call of economists and bloggers that there was “serious unrest in our caucus about can we afford this war.”
Ms. Pelosi said she did not want to sacrifice the party’s domestic agenda to the cost of the troop buildup. “The American people believe that if something is in our national security interest, we have to be able to afford it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we hold everything else” hostage to that.
Administration officials said that during the Monday meeting, officials discussed a proposal to deploy the American troops in waves, the first of which would go early next year to be in place in southern or eastern Afghanistan by spring. They said the American military should be able to deploy one brigade per quarter.
One administration official involved in Afghanistan policy said the president and his top advisers were thinking in terms of “exit strategies” and not necessarily “exit timetables.” He compared the current thinking to the “conditional engagement” that President George W. Bush used in Iraq.
As Afghan security forces are trained and deployed, the official said, American officials and commanders would watch closely to determine when operational control of a given area could be turned over to them. That is what happened in Iraq, as American forces gradually turned over control of territory to Iraqis once they had proved their ability.
“As you go along, you might have some target dates,” the administration official said, noting as an example the proposal by Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, that by 2012, the Afghan Army should be increased to 240,000 soldiers from 92,000, and police forces to 160,000 officers from 84,000.
Mr. Obama declined to say what day he would make his announcement, but officials said the Congressional leadership had been invited to the White House for a briefing next Tuesday.
Administration officials said that as part of his Afghanistan strategy, Mr. Obama would also announce strict benchmarks, or “performance” targets, which the United States will expect the Afghan government to meet. Mr. Obama will be tying both military and economic aid to Afghanistan to those targets, the officials said.
As the debate over the size of the troop increasehas played out over the last few months, an increase of about 30,000 reinforcements has won the support of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That number would fall between the 40,000 additional troops requested by the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and the far smaller number favored by some Obama advisers, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Obama will also be making a broader appeal for Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional actors to play a role, the officials said.
“We have to do it as part of a broader international community,” Mr. Obama said at the news conference. “So one of the things I’m going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners in this process.”
After Mr. Obama announces his Afghanistan strategy, Mrs. Clinton will brief NATO allies at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Dec. 3 and 4. There, Mrs. Clinton is expected to solicit specific contributions from them, including as many as 10,000 additional soldiers, bringing the total number of allied troops in line with General McChrystal’s request. Administration officials cautioned that they did not expect contributions to be nailed down until January.