Obama To Outline Afghan Strategy

President Obama announces Tuesday that he is sending 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, administration sources say. At a speech from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama is expected to also discuss how long he thinks the U.S. mission will last.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

After weeks of rumor, speculation and leaks, the number is 30,000: 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. Tonight, President Obama will announce plans to deploy those troops over the next six months, that's according to administration sources. And that number will be a central part of the president's speech tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The president is expected to announce that he wants those troops deployed more quickly than usual. And he will discuss how long he thinks the mission will last.

For more, NPR's Don Gonyea joins us from the White House. And Don, we're going to talk about that number, 30,000 troops, in a moment. But first, let's talk a bit about what the president is expected to say about what U.S. goals are in Afghanistan.

DON GONYEA: Right. Senior administration officials are talking on background this afternoon that president will discuss the goal of degrading the Taliban-backed insurgency. He will talk about how things have gotten far worse there over the past three or four years, and how this needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed quickly. That's why the U.S. troops that he is sending in will be deployed at an accelerated pace. It will be over six months instead of the usual 12 or 18 months that it might normally be expected to take. But the two things the president will talk about that they will need to see: first, by beating back the insurgency, he says that will provide time and space that will allow Afghan forces to be trained. So, look for him to talk about that tonight. And second, a diminished Taliban force will be weaker and thus it will be easier for those Afghan security forces to handle once they do take over.

BLOCK: And Don, 30,000 troops - these will be U.S. forces. What about help from NATO countries and additional troops from them?

GONYEA: The president will talk about the expectation that NATO will be sending some more troops, perhaps 5,000, perhaps more than that. But he will also highlight that there are 40,000 or so troops currently there, they come from some 44 different countries. He will talk about how important it is to have the entire world, the world involved in this mission. But let's be clear: The U.S. is doing the real heavy-lifting here, with 100,000 U.S. troops expected to be in place by next summer.

BLOCK: And Don, what should we be expecting to hear from President Obama tonight about timetables, specific benchmarks that he will be looking for on the Afghan side?

GONYEA: We will hear something tonight that we did not hear during the past administration when they talked about Iraq and Afghanistan. We will hear a date: July of 2011. Now, let me tell you what the White House stresses that date is not. It is not the goal for the end of the mission, period. It is when that transfer of security to Afghan forces will begin. But how fast that transfer takes place, how long it lasts, which would be the ultimate end date, those things will be determined by conditions on the ground.

BLOCK: So, no fixed endpoint, but at the same time, the message coming from the White House is that this will not be an open-ended mission. How are they reconciling those two things?

GONYEA: The White House is not, you know, this afternoon, reconciling them. That's going to be an interesting thing to see how the president does it tonight. They do stress that they do not intend to commit forces in Afghanistan indefinitely. The wiggle room is that they say this will be a long-term partnership. But in terms of massive numbers of U.S. forces there, that will come to an end at some point.

BLOCK: And what about the - both the politics and the public-opinion side of this announcement, Don? The president is facing an audience here at home that's increasingly skeptical about the war in Afghanistan. How does he plan on addressing that part of things?

GONYEA: That's the part of the speech that does not involve facts and figures and numbers and dates. That's the part we have to hear tonight and the American people will be listening very closely. We're waiting to see how he puts this together, how he solves it.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Don Gonyea at the White House. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

BLOCK: And you can hear the president's speech tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on many NPR stations and live streaming at npr.org.

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Officials: 30,000 More Troops To Afghanistan

W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan. i i

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

President Obama will announce plans to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan when he gives a nationally televised address Tuesday night, administration officials told NPR.

The president also is expected to lay out a rough time frame for the commitment of troops in the address, and is expected to outline their role: to secure population centers in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The increase will bring the total of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to more than 100,000.

Pentagon sources told NPR that Obama also has asked NATO member nations to contribute 5,000 more troops to the international force in Afghanistan.

After an exhaustive three-month strategic review, Obama will launch his second significant strategic escalation of the U.S. military's involvement in Afghanistan with Tuesday night's address.

A lengthy set of deliberations that included 10 high-level war council meetings has led to the speech, to be given at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

More broadly, Obama will be trying to convince a skeptical American public that the United States still has the time — and the capability — to reverse the deterioration in Afghanistan.

He presented his planned overhaul to his top advisers on Sunday and to close foreign allies on Monday. The White House portrayed the president's decision-making process as a rigorous and exhaustive effort to gear U.S. strategy more firmly toward the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The prime-time speech is a pivotal moment for the Obama White House, which needs to find some way to reverse a broad set of downward trends in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Obama conducted many of his formal policy sessions in the White House Situation Room, speaking with generals in Kabul by secure videoconference. But the debate also played out in public through a constant stream of leaks, speculation and partisan sniping.

Obama's critics, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, decried him for "dithering" and showing weakness.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Estimates vary on the cost of the war to taxpayers. The Congressional Research Service says it totals $227 billion so far.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Perhaps a bigger factor in any delay was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where record levels of violence and a disputed election that threatened the legitimacy of the Afghan government punctuated the debate in Washington.

Either way, the origins of Obama's West Point speech stretch back much further than the launch of this latest strategic review in September.

The course was set as far back as April 2007, two months after then-Sen. Obama formally declared that he was running for president. The candidate told a Chicago audience that the U.S. had been distracted by Iraq and needed to focus more attention on Afghanistan, "where more American forces are needed to battle al-Qaida, track down Osama bin Laden and stop that country from backsliding toward instability."

It was a theme Obama would repeat throughout his campaign — an emphasis on Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, as the war America should be fighting to combat global terrorism.

By the final months of the Bush administration, security in Afghanistan had begun to deteriorate rapidly. In July 2008, the number of daily insurgent attacks in Afghanistan surpassed the number in Iraq for the first time.

President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room. i i

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war. Pete Souza/AP/The White House hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room.

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war.

Pete Souza/AP/The White House

And by the time Obama was sworn in as president, the security situation was even worse. Obama immediately launched his first strategic review, a 60-day effort headed by Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official who had been one of his campaign advisers.

Not waiting for the results of that review, Obama in February announced the deployment of 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, for a total U.S. presence of 68,000 — where the force level now stands. The president said the bigger force was "necessary to stabilize the situation" in advance of Afghanistan's August presidential election.

As the White House was spending most of its time dealing with the global financial crisis and deepening recession, Obama announced the results of that first review in March. His new strategy called for additional resources for the Afghan effort, a more vigorous civilian effort to rebuild the country and a more concerted effort to train Afghan soldiers.

"We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country," Obama said. "That's how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our own troops home."

But less than two months later, with attacks still skyrocketing ahead of the August presidential election, Obama replaced his top general in Afghanistan. His new pick, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was chosen in large part for his expertise in counterinsurgency.

As the new U.S. commander, McChrystal was given time to conduct his own strategic assessment. The confidential report, dated Aug. 30, was a damning indictment of the current U.S. and NATO strategy, as well as the capability of the Afghan government.

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"The threat has grown steadily but subtly, and unchecked by commensurate counter-action, its severity now surpasses the capabilities of the current strategy," McChrystal wrote. "We cannot succeed simply by trying harder."

By this point, there had been nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks during the first eight months of 2009 in Afghanistan, which was more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data.

Separately, McChrystal presented Obama with several options for boosting U.S. troop levels, endorsing a plan that called for deploying some 40,000 additional soldiers.

Another key part of the general's recommendation was to boost the U.S. military's partnership with Afghan security forces and the Afghan government.

But even as the White House formally launched its second strategic review to address McChrystal's recommendations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was engulfed in a controversy over the alleged rigging of the August election.

The ballot-tampering was so blatant and widespread that it threatened to discredit the Kabul government completely.

The dispute dragged on until Karzai eventually agreed to a runoff election after being pressured by U.S. and Western diplomats. His rival, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out before the vote.

Karzai was finally sworn in for his second term late last month, but his inauguration did little to dispel the deep doubts about his government's ability to tackle corruption and incompetence.

As Obama prepares his speech on Tuesday night, one of his many challenges will be to explain how the United States will plausibly be able to hand over more and more responsibility for Afghanistan's security to Karzai's partially discredited government.

Obama also wants to demonstrate that the U.S. is working toward a broad exit strategy without sparking fear in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere that Washington is planning an imminent withdrawal.

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