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Obama Called for Fast Troop Deployment to Afghanistan

1 dicembre 2009
Interessante lavoro sul New York Times: articolo originale qui
By DAVID E. SANGER and PETER BAKER

WASHINGTON — President Obama has decided to expedite the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces, according to senior administration officials.

In bringing the total American force to nearly 100,000 troops by the end of May, the administration will move far faster than it had originally planned. Until recently, discussions focused on a deployment that would take a year, but Mr. Obama concluded that the situation required “more, sooner,” as one official said, explaining the some of the central conclusions Mr. Obama reached at the end of a nearly three-month review of American war strategy.

The officials insisted on anonymity to discuss the strategy to Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mr. Obama will formally announce in a nationally televised address from the United States Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday night.

The strategy aims to prevent Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, whose territory it used to prepare for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and to keep Taliban insurgents from toppling the government there. The 30,000 new American troops will focus on securing a number of population centers in Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, including Kandahar in the south and Khost in the east, the officials said. The American forces, they said, will pair up with specific Afghan units in an effort to end eight years of frustrating attempts to build them into an independent fighting force.

Mr. Obama has concluded that the strategy for dealing with the Taliban should be to “degrade its ability,” in the words of one of the officials deeply involved in the discussions, so that the Afghan forces are capable of taking them on. At the same time the president’s strategy calls for “carving away at the bottom” of the Taliban’s force structure by reintegrating less committed members into tribes and offering them paid jobs in local and national military forces.

“We want to knock the Taliban back, giving us time and space to build the Afghans up mainly in the security front but also in governance and development as well,” said one senior administration official. By weakening the Taliban through a quick infusion of troops, the official said, the administration hopes to make it a more manageable enemy for the Afghans to take on themselves.

For Mr. Obama, the strategy is a huge gamble in a war that has already gone on for eight years. Polls show that Americans are increasingly tired of the conflict and doubtful of American goals.

Success, the administration officials said in their fullest discussion yet of the thinking behind Mr. Obama’s approach, depends in large part on the cooperation of an Afghan government whose legitimacy is more in question than ever in the wake of elections marred by extensive fraud.

It also hinges on the success of a renewed relationship with a Pakistani government whose civilian leadership is exceptionally weak, whose military and intelligence services are distrustful of the United States and its commitment, and whose willingness to take on elements of the Taliban directing attacks against American troops from Pakistani territory is still unproven.

While the number of troops Mr. Obama is deploying falls short of the figure sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, his commander in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is also counting on reinforcements from American allies. Those allies currently have nearly 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, but European and Canadian officials have said they doubt Mr. Obama will get more than a few thousand more.

The new strategy draws heavily on lessons learned from President George W. Bush’s “surge” and strategy shift in Iraq in 2007, which Mr. Obama opposed as a senator and presidential candidate. Mr. Obama’s advisers are even referring to his troop buildup as an “extended surge.”

However officials said that Mr. Obama in his speech will give a time frame — something Mr. Bush did not do —for when the United States will start pulling the reinforcements out and begin turning over security responsibilities to Afghan forces one province at a time.

Mr. Obama’s aides would not say how specific he would be on Tuesday night about the time frame of the American presence. But clearly it would be well more than a year. That would take him to 2011 or 2012 — when Mr. Obama is up for re-election — before the troop levels would begin to fall again to fulfill the president’s oft-repeated assertion that he would offer no “open-ended commitment” to the Afghan government.

It is that date that is bound to be the focus of attention for his own party, at a time many Democrats are openly opposed to sending more troops. Some have questioned how Mr. Obama can simultaneously argue for a troop increase and a relatively quick pull-back. But in interviews, administration officials said that without the accelerated deployment, there was little hope of being able to stabilize the situation in the region sufficiently to start withdrawals.

“This is to speed the process,” one said.

The plan envisions that some troops would remain as a “light footprint” — a force that would probably stay behind in a reserve or supporting role for years to come — in a way similar to what the United States has done in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Bosnia.

The key to Mr. Obama’s strategy is succeeding in an area where Mr. Bush failed: Training a reliable Afghan force, not only the national army but a series of local forces as well. Mr. Obama is trying a new approach, pairing newly-deployed American troops with specific Afghan units. Currently, the Afghan army is in the lead in only one of 34 provinces in the country, around the capital of Kabul.

In addition to the influx of troops, administration officials said they are taking other lessons from the Iraq surge, such as empowering local security forces to stand up to Taliban militants in their communities and enhancing the training of national forces by embedding American troops with Afghan counterparts and later pairing similarly sized American and Afghan units to fight side by side.

“We learned a lot of lessons, painful lessons, out of Iraq on how to do training,” said one official involved in the discussions.

The lengthy process that led to Mr. Obama’s decision started out with sharp disagreements among his top advisers, but administration officials said that the intensive reviews and discussions ultimately led the participants to coalesce around the new strategy.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. initially opposed any substantial increase in troops in Afghanistan, arguing that Pakistan was the far more important priority since that is where Al Qaeda is now largely based. He was joined in that view by Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired commander now serving as American ambassador to Afghanistan, who described the growing resentment of the American military among the Afghan people.

On the other side of the deliberations were Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who warned that the American mission would fail without more troops and sought another 40,000, and military leaders who supported him, like Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among those who helped steer the review toward the eventual result was Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Obama spent more than 20 hours in 10 meetings in the Situation Room with his top national security advisers from Sept. 13 until last Sunday. He also conducted other meetings with smaller groups or consulted one on one with select advisers. The early meetings focused intently on what the American goals should be, not even addressing the question of troop levels until later in the process, officials said.

Along the way, they said, the intelligence community produced nearly three dozen fresh assessments of various related issues, like who the enemy was, where they were concentrated, what their capabilities were, what would happen under certain circumstances — including political collapse in Pakistan — and what a “game changer” would be in the war.

The central mission of the new strategy is the same as described by the White House after its last review in March — to focus on destroying Al Qaeda, the group that mounted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that still appears to have the reach to attack the United States. But regarding the Taliban, the administration’s latest review concluded that it need only degrade the capability of its various groups, some of which have close ties with Al Qaeda, on the assumption that they are indigenous and cannot be wiped out entirely.

Mr. Obama has sought to narrow America’s mission. There will be no talk of turning Afghanistan into a democracy — one of Mr. Bush’s central goals — and no discussion of “nation-building,” the officials said. But as they described it, some rudimentary nation-building is part of the plan, including helping the central government improve governance and curb corruption. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has made such promises in the past and never delivered; since he took office last month following an election marked by widespread fraud, he has made a series of new commitments to the United States, officials insist.

But clearly Mr. Obama does not trust the central government with much of the new American aid. Money will go to individual ministries depending on their performance, American officials have said in recent weeks. The United States, officials said, will also funnel more money and other assistance through local leaders to foster change from the bottom up, avoiding the country’s corrupt central coffers.

That is bound to foster some resentment inside Mr. Karzai’s government because it creates a direct link between the United States and local governments and leaders, a process that could further weaken Mr. Karzai’s authority over parts of the nation.

The meetings that determined Mr. Obama’s policy began with a heavy focus not on Afghanistan but on its neighbor, Pakistan. Mr. Obama will say far less about that country on Tuesday night, partly because so much of the activity there involves classified C.I.A. missions, including drone strikes on suspected Qaeda and Taliban leadership, and Special Forces raids over the border.

The number of drone strikes has increased drastically since Mr. Obama took office, although they have been scaled back in recent months because of fears of civilian casualties, which has led to a great anti-American backlash in Pakistan.

But the Pakistani government is also especially sensitive to any suggestion that it is acting on Washington’s behalf, so Mr. Obama is not expected to be specific about his efforts to get the country to go after Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader operating from the western city of Quetta, or the Haqqani network, which directs attacks in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have flown to Islamabad with offers of deeper military cooperation, intelligence sharing and aid to encourage it to do more to take on Qaeda and Taliban elements in the forbidding tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Mr. Obama’s advisers said that they believe that despite the country’s political chaos, they have been impressed by Pakistan’s efforts in recent months to move aggressively against insurgents.

“Pakistan has done a lot,” said one senior official. “Pakistan needs to do a lot more.”

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Landler from Washington; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and John F. Burns from London.

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