RPT-Obama to seek to rally support for Afghan war effort

Mon Aug 17, 2009 8:00am EDT

* Obama to address Veterans of Foreign Wars

* Aug 20 Afghan election to test Obama's strategy

By Matt Spetalnick

PHOENIX, Aug 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will seek to shore up U.S. public support for the war in Afghanistan on Monday just days before an Afghan presidential election widely seen as a major test of his revamped strategy.

Obama will address a military veterans group in Phoenix at a time when U.S. combat deaths are rising amid a troop buildup against a resurgent Taliban, and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year-old war.

Hoping to reassure Americans, Obama is expected to sketch out why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.

Since taking office in January, he has shifted focus from the more unpopular war in Iraq to Afghanistan, setting it as his administration's top foreign policy priority.

"He'll obviously touch on what we're accomplishing ... (and) what we hope to accomplish," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in previewing Obama's speech, which will be delivered at 11 a.m. local time to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

Obama will speak as Afghans prepare to vote in an election on Thursday that the Taliban, stronger than at any time since they were driven from power in 2001, have vowed to disrupt.

Securing the balloting will be a crucial test for Obama's strategy that has rushed 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan this year in a bid to tip the balance in a war some in Washington had admitted the United States was not winning.

"We've got tremendous resources there to ensure that there is a security situation that allows the Afghans to choose their leaders," Gibbs told reporters.

Underscoring the threat, however, the Taliban on Saturday claimed a suicide car bomb that killed seven people near the headquarters of the NATO-led international force in Kabul.

PRESSURE TO SHOW RESULTS

In a wide-ranging speech that will also delve into the winding-down of the Iraq war, defense spending and veterans' healthcare, Obama can be expected to tread carefully about the Afghan election to avoid any implication of U.S. interference.

Despite the Obama administration's unease about incumbent President Hamid Karzai's leadership, polls show him with a comfortable lead over his nearest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but not enough to avoid a second round run-off.

The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will deliver a strategy assessment shortly after the Afghan election. It comes at a time when Taliban violence is exerting pressure on Washington to show results in what was supposed to be a "good war."

After a record 44 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in July, a recent CNN poll showed U.S. public support for the war at a new low -- 54 percent opposed and 41 percent in favor.

Obama's strategy has called for increased aid as well as troops for Afghanistan, but the effort to bring in more civilians to help rebuild has been slow.

He has worked to draw neighboring Pakistan into a regional crackdown on the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies, and though Islamabad has stepped up counter-insurgency operations in its territory Washington still wants tougher action.

Iraq could also figure prominently in the speech. Obama, who rode to victory in last year's election partly on his opposition to the war, has said the United States is on track to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

He has said his predecessor George W. Bush was too distracted by Iraq to give adequate resources to Afghanistan.

For a graphic of leading candidates and an ethnic map click here

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