Obama To Detail Afghan Strategy At West Point

In a speech at West Point Tuesday night, President Obama is expected to reveal how many more U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan. It is one of the most important decisions of his presidency, which may be why the White House has moved slowly and deliberately. He is expected to approve sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama has decided to send tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Tonight, he will explain that decision to the nation. He will speak at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

MONTAGNE: This is one of the more important decisions of Mr. Obama's presidency, and the White House has moved slowly and deliberately. After today, the scene will shift to Afghanistan and also to military bases around the country and the soldiers and marines who will be sent to war.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been covering this story and joins us now. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us what you know of the specifics of the president's plan.

BOWMAN: Well, it looks like he will send anywhere from 30 to 34,000 additional troops. And this will push the American commitment in Afghanistan beyond a 100,000. We are looking at army troops, marine units. We expect some of those marine units out of Camp Lejeune, Northern Carolina to start moving even before Christmas. And beyond that, we expect more NATO troops to be part of the training effort for the Afghan police, in particular.

Now, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, was looking for about 40,000 troops. He thought that was about the right number for what he needed to do. And it looks like, with the American and NATO troops, you're going to get pretty close to that 40,000 number that McChrystal was looking for.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's stick, for the moment, with American troops; where are they expected to go and when they get there, Tom, what are they expected to do? Obviously fight, but not all of them.

BOWMAN: Well, most of the combat troops will be heading to Southern Afghanistan, that's the heartland, the homeland of the Taliban. And I was there back in October - November, and the two provinces where most of these troops are going to be going, Helmand province - it's a source of a lot of the poppy, the opium that fuels the Taliban - that's - that's really their cash crop. And there is some large area - there are 10,000 marines now in Helmand province, and they are going to send another 9,000 marines there.

There are huge swaths of that province that are still under Taliban control and under control of narco traffickers. One of them, for example, is called Marja - a huge area with canals and Taliban running around there. And they really - right now there's no presence there, for the most part, of Afghan or American forces.

MONTAGNE: We'll also - also going to be paying attention to Kandahar, which is known, pretty well by now, as sort of the heart of the Taliban.

BOWMAN: Exactly, right next door is Kandahar province, and Kandahar City -there's a growing Taliban influence there and there are very few U.S. troops or even Afghan forces within Kandahar city. So, look for another 10,000 more American troops to head to Kandahar, probably try to ring the city and close off any Taliban going in or out. So, those - those are the two huge areas where they're going to start sending American forces.

Now, the other mission is a training mission. So, you're going to see maybe 10,000 American troops as part of that training mission as well. So, that's a very important job for them as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's a lot of new troops. But there would be some that would ask if this is even enough new troops for - for what you're talking about, the mission.

BOWMAN: You know, we don't know that yet. McChrystal and his estimates thought 40,000 was roughly the right number. And again, there are two jobs here. There is a security element - they're going to fan out, provide this security blanket around the country in these areas under Taliban control. And another important part is this training effort. And it's going to be, what they call, a more robust training effort.

They're going to not only train Afghan forces, but live with them and then roll out on operations with them once they are trained up. So, they're actually going to go with them on operations and that's something new.

MONTAGNE: And Tom, just briefly, the White House said yesterday, this is not an open-ended commitment. What exactly does that mean?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet and that's a very important question because there are going to be multiple audiences tonight. The president's Democratic base has shown little interest, according to polls, in staying in Afghanistan, in staying there for a number of years.

And on the other hand, those in Pakistan and Afghanistan are saying - is the United States just going to walk away like they did back in the late 80's when the Soviets left? Are they going to stay here and help us? So, everyone's listening tonight for what he means by this commitment.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

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