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At last, Obama to roll out Afghan strategy

by Stephen Collinson
Tue Dec 1 23:03:05 EST 2009
Tue Dec 1 12:03:05 UTC 2009

WASHINGTON, Dec 1 AFP - Barack Obama on Tuesday makes a globally awaited address on his new Afghan war plan and big troop surge strategy, shouldering the most perilous burden yet of a presidency defined by crises.

Huge military and diplomatic stakes, a grave warning by the US commander that the war could be lost, and his own increasingly vulnerable political position demand a bravura Obama performance after months of deliberations.

In the televised address at 8pm on Tuesday (1200 AEDT Wednesday), Obama was expected to announce deployments of up to 35,000 more troops to battle the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to secure Afghan cities, along with more civilian aid.

Obama must rebrand the eight-year war for a divided nation dismayed by rising US combat deaths and robbed of its swagger by double-digit unemployment, tight family budgets and soaring fiscal deficits.

He needs to convince sceptics fearing a Vietnam-style quagmire that a plan to boost troop numbers to 100,000 can fashion a victory of sorts and a path home for US forces sent to war after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Opinion polls show sliding public support for the war, with more than 900 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and October the deadliest month yet with 74 US combat deaths. Many more foreign troops and Afghans have died.

Obama has spent months wrestling with a decision some backers fear could sink the promise of a reforming presidency. Aides say he will never forget a wrenching trip to a Delaware air base to honour the return of fallen soldiers.

Tuesday's speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, which will also freshen US strategy of Pakistan, and will be closely watched by foreign governments weighing US intent.

Obama is also likely to warn often skeptical NATO allies the fight is theirs too, and request more foreign troops.

Top advisors said Obama will tell Afghanistan and Pakistan that the US cannot stay for ever, but also offer an almost contradictory assurance that Washington will abandon them.

"This is not an open-ended commitment," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"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."

In a first sign of increased allied help, NATO ally Britain said on Monday it would this month send 500 more soldiers to boost its Afghan contingent to 9500 men and women.

French newspaper Le Monde reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked France for 1500 more soldiers, ahead of a mission to NATO headquarters in Brussels this week seen as a bid to drum up more resources.

France could provide more army and police training as well as reconstruction aid but is unlikely to send more troops, said French Defence Minister Herve Morin.

With about 3300 soldiers in Afghanistan, France is the fourth-largest contributor to the NATO-led coalition battling the Taliban and training Afghan security forces.

Obama's policy review came to the boil after Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal reported on the war to the Pentagon in August.

The Washington Post then revealed that the general had warned the war "will likely result in failure" without more troops to crush the insurgency.

Amid a flurry of leaks on possible strategy, Obama's task was further complicated by the corruption-tainted Afghan election, which fanned deep doubts about President Hamid Karzai.

Some administration officials, notably Vice-President Joseph Biden, support a more limited effort to pursue al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama first spoke out on the war during his 2008 White House run, apparently seeking to bolster his leadership credentials after opposing the war in Iraq.

He announced a first fresh Afghan strategy in March. In August, he said: "this is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity."

While he will reveal his hand to Americans on Tuesday, Obama signed orders implementing the strategy on Sunday.

He then spoke directly by secure video-link to McChrystal and US ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.

Obama called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to detail the plan on Monday, and talked to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown by video link.

Obama and Karzai discussed the new military strategy in an hour-long video conference, the Afghan leader's office said on Tuesday.

Obama also spoke briefly with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indian leader's office said. Singh was in Washington recently for talks with Obama.

Anticipating the troop increase, several anti-war groups said protests are scheduled for Tuesday at the main entrance to the West Point academy, and Wednesday at federal buildings in several US cities.