Marines to be first wave in new Afghanistan plan
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ANNE GEARAN AP National Security Writer WASHINGTON
New infusions of U.S. Marines will begin moving into Afghanistan almost as soon as President Barack Obama announces a redrawn battle strategy, a plan widely expected to include more than 30,000 additional U.S. forces. Obama will try to sell a skeptical public on his bigger, costlier war plan tonight by coupling the large new troop infusion with an emphasis on steppedup training for Afghan forces that he says will allow the U.S. to leave. Obama formally ends a 92-day review of the war in Afghanistan tonight with a nationally broadcast address in which he will lay out his revamped strategy from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He began rolling out his decision Sunday night, informing key administration officials, military advisers and foreign allies in a series of private meet ings and phone cal ls that Stretched into Monday. Military officials said at least one group of Marines is expected to deploy within two or three weeks of Obama's announcement , and would be in Afghanistan by Christmas. Larger deployments wouldn't be able to follow until early in 2010. The initial infusion is a recognition by the administration that something tangible needs to happen quickly, officials said. The quick addition of Marines would provide badly needed reinforcements to those fighting against Taliban gains in the southern Helmand province, and could lend reassurance to both Afghans and a war-weary U.S. public. The war escalation includes sending 30,000 to 35,000 more American forces into Afghanistan in a graduated deployment over the next year, on top of the 71,000 already there. Obama's announcement is the culmination of more than three months of debate over whether and how to expand U.S. military involvement in a war that has turned worse this year despite Obama's previous infusion of 21,000 forces. But the numbers of fresh troops don't tell the whole story, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said this morning. "It's what their mission is," he told ABC's "Good Morning America." "We're going to accelerate going after al-Qaida and its extremist allies. We'll accelerate the training of an Afghan national security force, a police and an army." In Kabul, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the new head of a U.S.-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said today that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops, to be reached by Oct. 31, 2010, no fixed higher target is set. There is a goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change. "Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it's not a hard, firm, fixed number," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He indicated that one reason for avoiding a hard-and-fast commitment to those higher numbers is the expected cost. So his orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. He intends to hold annual reviews, beginning next spring or early summer, to determine whether the higher targets of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police for a combined total of 400,000 by 2013 are still the right goals for Afghanistan. "If you grow it up to 400,000 if you did grow all the way to that number, and if it was required to help bring greater security to this country then of course you have to sustain it at that level, too, in terms of the cost of maintaining a force that size," he said. Nearly all the cost of building Afghan forces has been borne by the U.S. and other countries thus far. Obama also will deliver a deeper explanation of why the U.S. must continue to fight more than eight years after the war's start, emphasizing that Afghan security forces need more time, more schooling and more U.S. combat backup to be up to the job on their own. He will make tougher demands on the governments of Pakistan and, especially, Afghanistan and will provide a fresh path toward disengagement. Gibbs also promised that Obama would lay out an endgame scenario for U.S. involvement. "We want to as quickly as possible transition the security of the Afghan people over to those national security forces in Afghanistan," he said today. "This can't be nation-building. It can't be an openended forever commitment." With U.S. casualties in Afghanistan sharply increasing and little sign of progress, the war Obama once liked to call one "of necessity," not choice, has grown less popular with the public and within his own Democratic party. In recent days, leading Democrats have talked of setting tough conditions on deeper U.S. involvement, or even staging outright opposition. The displeasure on both sides of the aisle was likely to be on display when congressional hearings on Obama's strategy get under way later in the week on Capitol Hill. Obama was spending much of Monday 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 at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A briefing for dozens of key lawmakers was planned for this afternoon, just before Obama was set to leave the White House for the speech against a military backdrop at West Point. The Afghan government said today that President Hamid Karzai and Obama had an hourlong video conference. Obama was also going to speak with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. In Afghanistan, rampant government corruption and inefficiency have made U.S. success much harder. Obama was expected to place tough conditions on Karzai's government, along with endorsing a stepped-up training program for the Afghan armed forces along the outline recommended this fall by U.S. trainers. That schedule would expand the Afghan army to 134,000 troops by next fall, three years earlier than once envisioned. Military officials said the speech is expected to include several references to Iraq, where the United States still has more than 100,000 forces. The strain of maintaining that overseas war machine has stretched the Army and Marine Corps and limited Obama's options.