11 24 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan on an accelerated timetable that will have the first Marines there as early as Christmas and all forces in place by summer. But he also declared Tuesday night that troops will begin leaving in less than three years.
In a prime-time speech to the nation from West Point that ends a 92-day review, Obama sought to sell his much bigger, costlier war plan to a skeptical public in part by twinning it with some specifics about an exit strategy, said two senior administration officials.
He told the American people that U.S. troops will start leaving Afghanistan "well before" the end of his first term, with the aim of ending the main U.S. military mission there.
However, Obama did not lay out precisely when he believes the war will end.
With U.S. casualties in Afghanistan sharply increasing and little sign of progress from the war's beginning in 2001, the war Obama has called one "of necessity," not choice, has grown less popular with the public and within his own Democratic Party. In recent days, leading Democrats have talked of setting tough conditions on deeper U.S. involvement, or even staging outright opposition.
Obama is acknowledging the divided public opinion with his emphasis on an exit, as well as on stepped-up training to help Afghan forces take over and a series of specific demands for other governments, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO allies, to contribute more.
Unease with Obama's approach to the war is sure to be on display on Capitol Hill when congressional hearings begin this week.
With the full complement of new troops expected to be in Afghanistan by next summer, the heightened pace of Obama's military deployment appears to mimic the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, a 20,000-strong force addition under President George W. Bush. Similar in strategy to that mission, Obama's Afghan surge aims to reverse gains by Taliban insurgents and to secure population centers in the volatile south and east parts of the country.
In his speech and in meetings overseas in the coming days, Obama also will ask NATO allies to contribute more -- between 5,000 and 10,000 new troops -- to the separate international force in Afghanistan, diplomats said.
One official from a European nation said the troop figure was included in an official NATO document compiled on the basis of information received from Washington ahead of Obama's announcement. The NATO force in Afghanistan now stands at around 40,000 troops.
Obama also will make tougher demands on the governments of Pakistan and, especially, Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, rampant government corruption and inefficiency have made U.S. success much harder. The Afghan government said Tuesday that President Hamid Karzai and Obama had an hourlong video conference. Obama spoke Tuesday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
The 30,000 new U.S. troops will bring the total in Afghanistan to more than 100,000.
The president's long-awaited troop increase had been envisioned to take place over a year, or even more, because force deployments in Iraq and elsewhere make it logistically difficult to go faster. But Obama directed his military planners to make the changes necessary to hasten the Afghanistan additions, said one official.
Military officials said at least one group of Marines is expected to deploy within two or three weeks, a recognition by the administration that something tangible needs to happen quickly.
The new Marines would provide badly needed reinforcements to those fighting against Taliban gains in the southern Helmand province. They also could lend reassurance to both Afghans and a war-weary U.S. public.
Obama's announcement comes near the end of a year in which the war has worsened despite the president's earlier infusion of 21,000 forces.
Previewing a narrative the president is likely to stress, press secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC that the number of fresh troops don't tell the whole story. Obama will emphasize that Afghan security forces need more time, more schooling and more U.S. combat backup to be up to the job on their own.
In Kabul, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the new head of a U.S.-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. But, he said, no fixed higher target is set.
There is a general goal of eventually fielding 240,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said in a telephone interview with the AP that that could change depending on reviews beginning next spring or early next summer.
One reason is the expected cost. "If you grow it up to 400,000 -- if you did grow all the way to that number, and if it was required to help bring greater security to this country -- then of course you have to sustain it at that level, too, in terms of the cost of maintaining a force that size," he said. Nearly all the cost of building Afghan forces has been borne by the U.S. and other countries thus far.
Obama spent much of Monday and Tuesday on the phone, outlining his plan -- minus many specifics -- for the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China, India, Denmark, Poland and others. He also met in person at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
A briefing for dozens of key lawmakers was planned for Tuesday afternoon, just before Obama was set to leave the White House for the speech against a military backdrop.

Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Anne Flaherty in Washington and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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