NYT | Washington | December 1, 2009 |
President Obama issued orders to send about 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan as he prepared to address the nation Tuesday night to explain what may be one of the most defining decisions of his presidency. Mr. Obama conveyed his decision to military leaders late Sunday afternoon during a meeting in the Oval Office and then spent Monday phoning foreign counterparts, including the leaders of Britain, France and Russia. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, declined to say how many additional troops would be deployed, but senior administration officials previously have said that about 30,000 will go in coming months, bringing the total American force to about 100,000.
On top of previous reinforcements already sent this year, the troop buildup will nearly triple the American military presence in Afghanistan that Mr. Obama inherited when he took office and represents a high-stakes gamble by a new commander in chief that he can turn around an eight-year-old war that his own generals’ fear is getting away from the United States. The speech he plans to deliver at the United States Military Academy at West Point at 8 p.m. will be the first test of his ability to rally an American public that according to polls has grown sour on the war, as well as his fellow Democrats in Congress who have expressed deep skepticism about a deeper involvement in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gibbs told reporters at the White House that Mr. Obama would discuss in the speech how he intended to pay for the plan — a major concern of his Democratic base — and would make clear that he had a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war. “This is not an open-ended commitment,” Mr. Gibbs said. The administration was sending its special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richarrd C. Holbrooke, to Brussels on Tuesday to begin briefing NATO and European allies about the policy. He will be joined at NATO headquarters there on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who will brief NATO foreign ministers in his capacity as the senior allied commander.
Before leaving for West Point on Tuesday, Mr. Obama will meet with more than two dozen Congressional leaders at the White House to discuss his plan. Mr. Obama spent much of Monday calling allied leaders. He spoke for 40 minutes with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who signaled that France was not in a position to commit more troops. There are currently 3,750 French soldiers and 150 police officers in Afghanistan. “He said France would stay at current troop levels for as long as it takes to stabilize Afghanistan,” said an official briefed on the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private diplomatic exchange. Instead of troops, Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Obama that France was putting its focus on a conference in London sponsored by Germany and Britain to rally support for Afghanistan, officials in Washington and France said. The French defense minister, Hervé Morin, publicly confirmed the French position on Monday, saying, “There is no question for now of raising numbers.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said Monday that Britain would send 500 additional troops to Afghanistan in early December, raising the number of British troops there to 10,000.
The announcement was closely coordinated between the governments in London and Washington, the two largest troop providers in the 43-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Mr. Brown spoke to Mr. Obama by video link after his announcement in the House of Commons. Mr. Obama also called President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and he met at the White House with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Administration officials said that Mr. Obama in his speech would lower American ambitions for the rate of training Afghan soldiers and the national police, a position that could put him at odds with some senior lawmakers. They have been pressing to expand and accelerate the training, to speed the day when Afghan forces could assume more security duties and American troops could begin to withdraw.
In his strategic assessment, General McChrystal called for increasing the Afghan Army and the national police force by a combined 400,000 people. But after originally embracing this approach, administration officials had second thoughts, fearing that pursuing this goal would just churn out thousands of substandard recruits. An administration official said the focus now would be on producing somewhat fewer but better trained troops, as quickly as possible. The shift was reported Monday by The Wall Street Journal.
Under the new plan, newly trained Afghan security forces will work with American or other allied forces at every level. General McChrystal recommended this requirement in his assessment to increase the quality of the Afghan force and “accelerate their ownership of Afghanistan’s security.” A senior Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a plan that had not been formally announced, said Monday that the first additional troops would be thousands of Marines sent to opium-rich Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of Afghanistan. The Marines will begin to arrive in the region in January, the official said, and will be followed by a steady flow of tens of thousands.
Most of the additional forces in the south will go to Kandahar Province, the Taliban heartland, where the United States is stretched thin and has very few troops in the province’s largest city, also called Kandahar. The Taliban are currently in control of large parts of the province and are contesting control of the city. The Defense Department official said that the additional United States troops would be used to try to secure the city and then the region. “With more forces we should be able to lock down the security in Kandahar and the surrounding areas of Kandahar,” the official said. The official said that after the president’s speech, which will begin at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday in Afghanistan, General McChrystal would brief his commanders and then embark on a daylong fly-around to visit NATO military installations in the country — Kandahar in the south, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, Bagram Air Base in the east and Herat in the west.