Obama to lay down Afghanistan exit timetable

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The Independent US

Barack Obama will tonight confirm that the US is sending 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, to be deployed over six months, a senior administration official has told The Associated Press.

The new troops will bring the total in Afghanistan to more than 100,000 US forces. The main mission of the new troops will be to reverse Taliban gains and secure population centres in the volatile south and east parts of the country.

In a nationally broadcast address tonight, the US President will also lay out a rough timeframe, including some dates, for when the main US military mission will end.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the details had not yet been announced.

The President is expected to reveal his plan for winning an unpopular eight-year-old war in Afghanistan, embarking on a mission to sell sceptical Americans on the need to put thousands more troops in harm's way and to spend additional billions of taxpayer dollars.

Obama formally ends a 92-day review of the war in Afghanistan when he details his revamped strategy at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.

He began rolling out his decision Sunday night, informing key administration officials, military advisers and foreign allies in a series of private meetings and phone calls.

Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai during an hour-long video conference call this morning, a spokesman for the presidential palace in Kabul said, as well as Asif Ali Zardari, the president of neighbouring Pakistan. They are the two leaders on whom the success of the plan may depend the most.

Obama is setting in motion a strategy that may represent a defining decision of his presidency. At least one group of US Marines will be in place by Christmas. Larger deployments wouldn't be able to follow until early in 2010.

Obama will try to sell a sceptical public on his bigger, costlier war plan by coupling the large new troop infusion with an emphasis on stepped-up training for Afghan forces that he says will allow the US to leave.

The president faces stiff opposition in Congress, where lawmakers control spending for the war effort and many fellow Democrats oppose expanding or even continuing the conflict. This displeasure was likely to be on display when hearings on Obama's strategy get under way later in the week. A briefing for dozens of key politicians was planned for this afternoon, just before Obama heads to West Point.

While specifics of the new policy have been closely guarded by the White House, others inside the administration have said that Obama has signed off on a step-by-step addition of as many as 35,000 more troops.

And comments yesterday by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated that Obama will be forward looking in his speech before an audience of cadets, many of whom will soon be headed to fight in Afghanistan.

He will focus on the need to protect Afghans from the brutal Taliban insurgency and to train the country's security forces for the day when they assume control of a land that has been at war for 30 years.

Obama is not expected to set a deadline for an American withdrawal, but Gibbs stressed, "This is not an open-ended commitment."

"I think there has to be a renewed emphasis on the training of Afghan national security forces," Gibbs said, explaining that the president's plan looked toward the day when the Afghan army and police would be "primarily responsible" for security.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 al-Qa'ida terrorist attacks on the United States.

Osama bin Laden, leader of the group, and key members of the terrorist organisation were headquartered in Afghanistan at the time, taking advantage of sanctuary afforded by the Taliban government that ran the mountainous and isolated country.

Taliban forces were quickly driven from power, while bin Laden and his top deputies were believed to have fled into neighboring Pakistan. While the al-Qa'ida leadership appears to be bottled up in the rugged mountains, the US military strategy of targeted missile attacks from unmanned drone aircraft has yet to flush bin Laden and his cohort from hiding.

That, the administration argues, means the US must continue fighting to prevent the Taliban from regaining control and reopening the country to al-Qa'ida.

"I think what the president will discuss ... is ensuring that we prevent the Taliban from being capable of controlling the government of Afghanistan, as well as incapable of providing safe haven from which al-Qa'ida can plot and undertake terrorist activities like we've seen happen previously in the United States," Gibbs said.

The escalation of US forces over the coming year would put more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan at an annual cost of about $75bn.

Obama was spending much of yesterday and today 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 yesterday at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who said his country will stand by the US "for the long haul" in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday announced that 500 extra UK troops would arrive in southern Afghanistan next month.