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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. This week, we'll be reporting on a buildup in the war in Afghanistan. President-elect Barack Obama has called Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror. And the Bush administration is conducting not one but three strategy reviews of the Afghan war. Still unanswered are questions about negotiating with the Taliban and how quickly the Afghan army can be expanded. Even without answers to those questions, the buildup is already under way. In the first of three reports, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, looks at the ground war. At least 20,000 more American troops are expected to be sent to Afghanistan next year. And Tom spoke with the first soldiers slated to deploy.

TOM BOWMAN: Troops from the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division were busy getting ready for a year in Iraq. They'd hired Arabic speakers to portray village elders and police, and trained with them for weeks. Then the call came from the Pentagon in August. The brigade's 3,500 soldiers were going to Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. TOM GUKEISEN (Operations Officer, 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division): It was out of the blue. It was out of the blue, sir. I'll be frank.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gukeisen is operations officer for the brigade. He had to quickly change the training.

Lt. Col. GUKEISEN: So it was a large shift, and a lot of work went into shifting that to Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That included climbing mountains in Vermont so soldiers could acclimate to the rugged Afghan peaks, shooting long-range artillery to practice firing on remote Taliban emplacements, and, of course, hiring dozens of different role-players who speak the Afghan languages. Once the soldiers from the 3rd Brigade arrive in Afghanistan in January, commanders there will have to decide how to use them. The planning is well under way. Brig. Gen. Mark Milley is a senior American officer there. During a recent interview with NPR at his office at Bagram Air Base, he stabbed at a point on a map.

Brig. Gen. MARK MILLEY (Senior American Officer, Afghanistan): I think it will change the nature of the game in the particular areas that we're going to employ them in.

BOWMAN: That point on the map is near Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. That's where Taliban forces are blowing up bridges and attacking buses and trucks heading to the city. French troops are now guarding the northern route to the city. The 10th Mountain Division's mission: Protect the southern road to the capital. And when thousands more American troops get to Afghanistan, the plan is to send them to two other critical areas - in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's homeland, and the east, where fighters are streaming over from neighboring Pakistan.

Brig. Gen. MILLEY: The numbers will have to go up in Afghanistan to suppress this insurgency in order to advance developments, advance economic development, advance infrastructure development and advance governance.

BOWMAN: By the end of January, another troop announcement is expected. This time, look for the Marines to head in, says Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy chief of NATO forces.

Maj. Gen. MICHAEL TUCKER (Deputy Chief, NATO Forces): We do not have anything written so far, but we're anticipating some Marines to come in.

BOWMAN: As early as the spring, say Pentagon sources, thousands of Marines will be heading to southern Afghanistan. Tucker says thousands of support troops will follow.

Maj. Gen. TUCKER: That is a combination of engineers, logistics, military intelligence, more helicopters and, of course, more ground troops.

BOWMAN: And that's another challenge - getting the right mix of troops. Add to that list more military trainers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants the Afghans to handle their own security more quickly.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Department): This is their fight, and they have to be out front in this fight. That's why I'm such a strong supporter of accelerating the expansion of the Afghan army.

BOWMAN: Ask American officers what it will take to get the Afghan military ready faster, they'll tell you it'll take about 1,000 more trainers. All these troops - trainers, engineers, shooters - are heading over as the government finishes three strategy reviews on Afghanistan. Some officials question whether it makes sense to keep pumping in American combat units before a new strategy is accepted. The troops with the 10th Mountain Division don't have the time to second-guess. Col. Gukheisen served in Afghanistan just two years ago, so did about a third of his soldiers. They're returning to a more dangerous place this time.

Lt. Col. GUKEISEN: So, danger is a relative term, and we were fighting then, and we will continue to fight there until the government can stand up.

BOWMAN: His troops are preparing for a deployment ceremony Friday at Fort Drum, New York. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: And tomorrow, Tom examines how air forces are playing a bigger role in a bigger war.

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