Around 30,000 more troops being considered

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama is wrapping up deliberations on war strategy in Afghanistan and is considering final Pentagon options that include sending about 30,000 more troops, officials said on Saturday.

A deployment of that size would be less than the 40,000-troop increase recommended by Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, but more than many of Obama’s Democratic allies may support.

Record combat deaths have eroded US public support for the war, and a decision to expand troop levels could become a political liability for the president ahead of congressional elections next year.

Currently, there are about 67,000 US troops and 40,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.

Under one of the final Pentagon options presented to the White House, three additional combat brigades would be deployed and a division headquarters set up near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, as part of a 30,000-troop increase.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Obama had settled on a troop increase but has yet to make up his mind about its size.

Brigades generally include 3,500 to 4,000 troops, though they can swell to over 5,000 troops if other units are attached. Marine brigades can be larger.

Mr Obama, who will visit Asia from Nov 12-19, is expected to announce his decision within a few weeks, possibly after Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration. Mr Karzai was re-elected in a controversial poll tainted by fraud.

The timing may hinge on the extent to which Mr Karzai embraces US and European calls for a pact under which his government would commit to taking concrete steps to fight corruption and improve governance, including the delivery of public services.

Washington believes a successful counter-insurgency strategy against the Taliban hinges in large part on winning Afghan public support for the government in Kabul.

But Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that the re-elected president’s legitimacy among the Afghan people was ‘at best, in question right now and, at worst, doesn’t exist.’

Options on table

Senior Obama administration officials have stepped up consultations with key allies, laying the ground for an announcement on strategy and troop levels.

In his confidential troop request, Gen McChrystal said 40,000 additional troops were needed to help secure Afghan population centres and to give Nato some additional resources to take on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in outlying areas.

Another option, deemed more risky by Gen McChrystal, calls for between 10,000 and 15,000 more troops, which would enable the commander to focus on securing population centres but provide few additional resources to broaden the anti-Taliban campaign.

A third option – to send an additional 80,000 troops to mount a more robust counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban across the country – was widely seen as a non-starter from the onset of the White House review.

Support for continuing a counter-insurgency strategy with a greater focus on protecting major Afghan population centres has been growing within the Obama administration.

Counter-insurgency advocates include Defence Secretary Robert Gates and military leaders, including Gen McChrystal. Officials said this strategy could be combined with a stepped up counter-terrorism campaign, advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, using unmanned aerial drones and special operations forces to combat Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the Afghan countryside and near the border with Pakistan. — Reuters.

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