U.S. mulls counter-insurgency push in Afghanistan
* Obama administration weighs range of options
* Possibility of scaling back to simply fight terrorism
* Official casts doubt on U.S. strikes in Baluchistan (Adds report Obama considering plan to expand Afghanistan's security force, paragraphs 5-6)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, March 18 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's aides are weighing a range of options to shift policy in Afghanistan, including a full-scale counter-insurgency push to protect civilians nationwide, officials said on Wednesday.
Among the ideas are scaling back the U.S. mission to focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan forces; making a focused counter-insurgency push in the violent south and east; and pursuing a wider campaign to protect civilians across the country, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.
Hundreds of civilian officials from across the U.S. government would be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the new strategy in a sort of "civilian surge," said another official, including veteran U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who would be a deputy to the top U.N. official on the ground.
The officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss a White House review of policy toward Afghanistan expected to be released in the next week or so.
One option under consideration is a vast expansion of Afghanistan's security force to help stabilize the country, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces' current size, the newspaper said, adding the cost projections of the program range from $10 billion to $20 billion over the next six or seven years. White House, Pentagon and State Department officials declined comment on the report.
One official said each option would require different levels of U.S. troops, suggesting they presented a sort of sliding scale with the most resources needed for a national program of population security and counter-insurgency.
Such an effort would be costly at a time when the U.S. government is already borrowing heavily to try to contain the global financial crisis and revive world growth.
While declining to discuss the policy review in detail, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was reluctant to get drawn into an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan.
"I've been very concerned about an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops for a variety of reasons, including the size of our footprint in Afghanistan and my worry that the Afghans come to see us as not their partners and allies, but as part of their problem," he told reporters.
More than seven years after U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials admit the United States and its allies are not winning the war in Afghanistan.
The country has seen a steady increase in violence as well as in deaths among Afghan civilians and U.S. troops.
U.S. MISSILE STRIKES IN BALUCHISTAN?
Some of the options under discussion were first described by The New York Times, which reported some U.S. officials were advocating the use of missile strikes inside Pakistan beyond tribal areas to the province of Baluchistan. [ID:nN17318571]
The province borders southern Afghanistan, where some of the heaviest fighting has taken place, and is believed to be a safe haven for members of the Taliban leadership ousted from Afghanistan in 2001.
The White House has declined comment on the Afghan policy review or on possible wider missile strikes inside Pakistan.
One U.S. official played down the idea, saying it was not being "put forward seriously" and it did not make sense to use the same tactics in Baluchistan as in the tribal areas, where the Pakistani government has limited presence and influence.
"You can't use the same tactics in a settled, populous area ... where the government has a great deal of penetration and control as you would in a sparsely populated area where the government has limited presence," this official said.
While declining to discuss specifics, Gates said dealing with the Taliban in Baluchistan was "principally a problem and a challenge for the Pakistanis to take on."
Officials said a regional approach -- code for trying to find a way to shut down Taliban safe havens in Pakistan -- was part of each option in the policy review, which is expected to be presented before Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fly to Europe at the end of the month.
Other threads that run through them all are building up Afghan military and civilian capabilities and finding the resources to support whatever strategy is adopted.
Officials said two other elements under discussion were making a significant "civilian surge" of U.S. experts to address Afghanistan's development needs as well as a strategic communications campaign to try to persuade the U.S., Afghan, Pakistani and European publics to support the war effort.
The Washington Post, which first reported the plan to send more U.S. civilians to Afghanistan, said U.S. diplomat Francis Ricciardone would serve at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul with the rare title of "deputy ambassador" to Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, Obama's choice for ambassador to Afghanistan. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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