Obama orders Afghan strategy into force

President Barack Obama has given fateful orders likely to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan in a political gamble meant to forge an eventual United States exit from a costly and gruelling war.

“The commander-in-chief has issued the orders,” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said on Monday, as Obama briefed world leaders on his new Afghan strategy, a day before making a major televised address to the American people.

The plan emerged from an exhaustive policy review amid extreme weariness of the war among Americans, and as supporters warned Obama could be risking his presidency by deploying thousands more men to a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Obama is expected to order between 30 000 and 35 000 more troops to bolster the US effort to repel a resurgent Taliban, secure major cities and fast-track training for Afghan security forces, alongside a separate civilian aid surge.

The president will also assure Americans and regional leaders he will not underwrite an indefinite and costly stay in Afghanistan for US troops.

“This is not an open-ended commitment,” Gibbs said, painting the plan as an eventual pathway for US troops to come home.

“We are there to partner with the Afghans, to train the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, so that they can provide security for their country and wage a battle against an unpopular insurgency.”

The White House said Obama delivered orders—marking the most crucial leadership test of his presidency so far—on Sunday, after telling top aides of his final decision.

He met generals and top security aides in the Oval Office.

He then spoke directly by secure video-link to Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, who warned earlier this year the conflict would be lost without more troops—and US ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.

Obama will address Americans in a major televised speech to cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point at 1am GMT on Wednesday.

He will tell a nation weary of years of conflict and humbled by the worst economic crisis in generations why it must risk yet more lives and wealth in a war launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

His message will be compelling listening for voters, lawmakers and soldiers, US allies, leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents battling Washington in a bloody eight-year war.

Many of Obama’s core political supporters, and key Democrats worried about ballooning budget deficits, are wary of more troop deployments. Republicans have, however, demanded the president answer the generals’ calls for more help.

Public relations offensive
As he launched a public relations offensive to market the new strategy, Obama called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday.

French newspaper Le Monde said Washington had asked for 1 500 more French troops.

Obama also spoke by secure video link with Gordon Brown after the British prime minister announced he would increase British regular troop numbers by 500 to 9 500 in December.

Obama will also talk to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who both will be key players in the new strategy.

The US leader told Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of his plans in person, during Oval Office talks.

Rudd pledged to send more police trainers and civilian aid experts to Afghanistan, saying his country was in “for the long haul” but did not pledge more troops beyond the 1 550 Australia has already committed.

Consultations with key players in Congress, where some Democrats have expressed scepticism about new troop deployments, were taking place on Monday and Tuesday.

About 35 000 American soldiers were fighting the Taliban-led insurgency when Obama took office. After an initial boost in February there are now about 68 000.

More than 900 American soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan and October was the deadliest month since the start of the war in 2001, with 74 US soldiers killed.

Obama on Sunday spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by telephone, then met: Defence Secretary Robert Gates; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the joint chiefs of staff; General James Cartwright, the vice-chairperson of the joint chiefs; White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; and General David Petraeus, head of US central command.—AFP


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