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Troop request on table as Obama weighs Afghan mission

Thu Oct 8 21:36:51 EST 2009
Thu Oct 8 10:36:51 UTC 2009

by Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON, Oct 8 AFP - President Barack Obama has moved closer to a crucial decision on the US-led war in Afghanistan after receiving a request from his commander to send in thousands more troops, officials said.

With the appeal for reinforcements in hand, Obama and his top advisers could start talking about committing yet more troops to the unpopular war later this week after a wide-ranging strategy review, the White House said Wednesday.

Obama's next detailed briefing on the status of the war, and the possible way forward, is back in the secure White House Situation Room on Friday.

As the NATO mission struggles to counter a spreading insurgency, Obama faces an appeal for up to 40,000 troops from the commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

On Tuesday the president told lawmakers he had no intention of reducing the US military force in Afghanistan, which will reach 68,000 troops by the end of this year, an administration official said on condition of anonymity.

The choice for Obama may lie somewhere between keeping roughly the current level of troops or opting for the commander's "all-in" approach that would inject tens of thousands of additional forces into the fight against Islamist insurgents.

Top security, military and political advisers met Wednesday in the Situation Room for a third in-depth meeting on Afghanistan, amid accusations from some Republican lawmakers that Obama was dithering.

The high-stakes war council comes amid rising public doubts over the mission, a spike in US and NATO casualties and an increasingly tenacious insurgency, eight years into what is now one of the longest US military operations on record.

NATO suffered its deadliest attack in Afghanistan in more than a year on Sunday when eight US soldiers were killed in a firefight in a remote province, and on Thursday a suicide attacker detonated a huge car bomb in Kabul, leaving at least 12 people dead and 83 wounded, officials said.

In a move suggesting he may be close to making up his mind, the president asked for the troop request document last Thursday before setting off for Copenhagen, where he briefly met with McChrystal aboard his plane.

The troop request had been closely held by Defence Secretary Robert Gates to avoid leaks of the politically sensitive document, the Pentagon said.

A "formal request" for more troops vetted by the US and NATO military chain of command had not yet been presented to the president, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Gates had earlier said he would hold off on passing on McChrystal's request until a White House review of strategy was completed.

Requests for forces are usually reviewed by senior US military leaders before being passed on to the defence secretary and the president.

An earlier sensitive document from the commander - an assessment of the war - was leaked to the media last month, piling political pressure on Obama's deliberations.

"I think we wanted to avoid any opportunity for leaking of this before... the president had an opportunity to see it himself," Morrell said.

A new poll Wednesday added to the political tumult whipped up around Obama's decision-making process.

The Quinnipiac University survey found 65 per cent of voters willing to have US soldiers fight and possibly die to stamp out extremists operating in Afghanistan.

But only 38 per cent of those asked said they would be willing to send more troops there.

Other polls have shown rising public anxiety over the war, launched to target Al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Wednesday is the eighth anniversary of former president George W. Bush's 2001 announcement of the start of air strikes in Afghanistan.

Anti-war protesters gathered Monday outside the White House, where several arrests were made. Others rallied on Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York, where protesters in Grand Central Terminal unfurled a large banner that said "Quagmire!"

This year has been the deadliest of the war, with 394 foreign troops killed in 2009 including 236 Americans, according to an AFP count.