Obama set to announce plans for Afghan troop deployment

President will call for Nato allies to play their part in long-awaited speech next week
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The Independent US

President Barack Obama said yesterday that he is almost ready to announce how many troops he will deploy to "finish the job" in Afghanistan, but added that he expected America's allies similarly to meet their obligations there.

Speaking during a joint press conference with the visiting Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the President demurred when asked for specifics by reporters, saying only that the country would know his intentions after Thanksgiving, the national holiday that is celebrated tomorrow.

With most Americans still in a festive mood on Friday, it seemed likely that the announcement would come on Monday or Tuesday, possibly in the form of Mr Obama's first television address to the nation from the Oval Office. Sources indicated that after a final meeting of his war council on Monday evening, he had finally settled on sending roughly 34,000 additional soldiers to the war, but phased over a year or even more. "After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job," Mr Obama said. "I will be making an announcement to the American people about how we intend to move forward. I will be doing so shortly."

Officials at the Pentagon hinted that the reinforcements to the 68,000 US troops already on the ground will be sent in waves, roughly at the pace of one brigade a quarter. Any faster and the strain on the Afghan infrastructure and America's military budget may prove too great. "This will not be done overnight," said Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell. "This is going to take some time to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan, if that is the route we take."

For Mr Obama, the announcement will be a dicey moment in his young presidency. While conservatives have accused him of dithering over Afghanistan, his core liberal supporters will be appalled by the notion of committing even one more soldier to a war that is unpopular and expensive in money and lives. It is why his speech will emphasise an exit strategy and the partnership he expects from the allies, including Britain.

"One of the things I'm going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners," he said, while adding: "The Afghan people ultimately are going to have to provide for their own security, and so we'll be discussing that process whereby Afghan security forces are properly trained and equipped to do the job."

Selling an increased US commitment to Americans will be tough, but Mr Obama may face an even harder audience on Capitol Hill, where scepticism about the war has been growing among Democrats. General Stanley McChrystal, who initiated the review process by asking for 40,000 new troops, is likely to be summoned to testify before committees on the Hill as to why a troop increase is necessary.

Also preparing for a call to testify is Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, who helped to reveal deep divisions inside the Obama administration when he argued in two cables to the President that sending any additional soldiers to Afghanistan was a bad idea until the recently reinstalled President Hamid Karzai improved the competence and erased the corruption of his government.

No new troops would be likely to arrive in Afghanistan until the early spring when fighting with the Taliban usually begins to pick up again. They would almost certainly be deployed to bolster the US presence in southern Afghanistan around Kandahar. The roll-out would continue into early 2011.

Mr Obama will also stress the importance of the civilian and diplomatic components of any new plan for Afghanistan.

* President Obama's delay in deciding whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan has undermined support in Britain for the war, the Defence Secretary warned yesterday. Giving evidence to the Commons Defence Select Committee, Bob Ainsworth said the delays in the US had hit ministers' attempts to argue the case for war.