Afghan strategy may be days out

Key general, emissary to go before Congress about war, sources say

November 24, 2009|By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - The top U.S. general and the U.S ambassador in Afghanistan have been told to prepare to testify before Congress as early as next week, according to White House and other U.S. officials, giving an indication of how and when President Barack Obama plans to announce his war strategy.

And according to at least one news service report, Obama will announce next week that the U.S. plans to deploy more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

The officials discussing the congressional testimony, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans have yet to be announced, said Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have not been given a date for their appearance before committees that would consider additional war funding requests.

But, the officials said, the two have been told that their testimony would quickly follow Obama's announcement, so that they could offer details and support for the president's strategy for how to proceed with the eight-year-old war. Opinion polls show that most Americans believe it is no longer worth fighting.

On Monday night, Obama met in the White House Situation Room with his senior national security advisers, including Eikenberry and McChrystal, who was expected to join the session by teleconference from Kabul.

In an effort to weaken the Taliban insurgency and destroy al-Qaida, Obama is choosing from several strategic options, all of which call for deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops and would cost tens of billions of dollars a year.

McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has requested 40,000 additional U.S. troops to reverse the Taliban's momentum and to train more quickly Afghan forces. But Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who served in Afghanistan, opposes additional troop deployments until President Hamid Karzai roots out corruption in his administration and takes other steps to strengthen the country. Their congressional testimony could prove politically delicate.

McClatchy News Service, citing unidentified military and defense sources, reported Monday night that Obama will announce Dec. 1 that the United States is going to deploy 34,000 additional troops to Afghanistan next year.

According to the McClatchy report, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.; the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.; and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan - to which the U.S. has long been committed - and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

The administration's plan, McClatchy reported, contains "off-ramps," points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters Monday that Obama is still seeking information on "not just how we get people there, but what's the strategy for getting them out." He said the subject would be the focus of the Monday evening review session, the last one that has been scheduled.

For much of the fall, Obama has been meeting with his war council to determine a new strategy in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed. Now he has 18 weekdays left to announce his decision - not counting Thanksgiving break - before he leaves for his Christmas holiday vacation in Hawaii.

But his schedule for the rest of November and December is filling up with other events and appearances, some of which could create public relations challenges if they happen too close to the presentation of an expanded war effort.

Administration officials have said Obama will not outline his decision until after Thanksgiving, and it appears increasingly probable he will do so early next week. In addition to McChrystal and Eikenberry, senior administration officials whose support for the strategy is essential are preparing to be in town for possible appearances before Congress.

For example, Greek officials announced Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be attending next week's Athens meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Clinton missed the last OSCE meeting after breaking her elbow. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has no official plans to travel next week.

Obama will probably have to make the announcement early next week because he has scheduled a "jobs summit" at the White House on Dec. 3. The next day he plans to travel to Allentown, Pa., to talk about jobs and the economy.

Obama could push the announcement back, but that might create other conflicts.

Along with the timing of the Afghanistan announcement, it is also not clear how the White House plans to present the plan to the public, although the testimony by McChrystal and Eikenberry before Congress offers some clarity.

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