November 25, 2009 / 10:53 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A: Obama ponders extra troops for Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama says he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan, a signal he is likely to announce next week that he is sending tens of thousands of extra troops. The announcement should mostly fulfill a request by his commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who says the extra forces are needed to carry out a new strategy to defeat the Taliban.

Here are some questions and answers about the new deployment:


Nearly 110,000 international troops are already in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans. More than half of the Americans have arrived since Obama took office — some ordered to go in the last months of the Bush administration, others by Obama himself. Obama is expected to send between 30,000 and 40,000 extra troops, taking the total number close to 150,000, nearly as many as were in Iraq during the “surge” there from 2007-2008.


McChrystal’s strategy, described in an August assessment, focuses on population centers. As in Iraq in 2007, and earlier this year in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, commanders will concentrate on certain strategic target areas to maximize their impact, rather than spread forces across the battlefield.

Most of the new combat power is likely to be in the south. The largest share of extra troops will probably be deployed in and around the southern city of Kandahar — Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the historical heartland of the Taliban — where commanders say NATO has long had too small a presence. More than one combat brigade of about 5,000 troops would likely be needed to impose security on the city.

Kandahar is also likely to get an upgraded command headquarters to reflect the greater scale of the deployment in the south. Neighboring Helmand province, Afghanistan’s most violent region and main opium-growing area, received the bulk of combat reinforcements this year and is unlikely to receive many more.

In the east, McChrystal has identified Khost province, the power base of insurgents loyal to the Haqqani family, as a battlefront, along with the neighboring provinces of Paktia and Paktika. A major U.S. combat effort in years past has been the remote eastern border with Pakistan, in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. McChrystal has been disengaging from these areas, however, choosing to focus on more heavily populated regions.

Commanders are also concerned about militants spreading from their southern and eastern bases into western provinces such as Farah, Herat and Badghis, and northern areas such as Kunduz. The main NATO ground units there are from European countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain. Washington is unlikely to provide large combat units for these areas, but may send additional special forces and mobile rapid response units.


The U.S. reinforcements package is likely to include thousands of additional trainers to speed up the pace of building up Afghanistan’s own army and police. McChrystal has set targets to accelerate training, so that larger and more capable Afghan security forces can more quickly take over responsibility for the country’s security. Washington is hoping European allies will also send extra trainers and has set up a new NATO training headquarters in Kabul this week to include them.


U.S. officials estimate the Afghan deployment will cost roughly $1 million per service member yearly, which will likely add $30-$40 billion to the annual U.S. deficit.


Washington can begin sending new troops in early 2010 by diverting forces that otherwise would have been dispatched to Iraq, as it draws down the size of its force there. The deployment would then be gradual and possibly stretch into 2011, with U.S. defense officials saying they can send about one additional combat brigade to Afghanistan every three months.


This question will be asked a lot and still hasn’t been answered. Obama has said he intends to discuss an “end game” as part of his new strategy and wants to finish the war before he leaves office. Expect him to make clear in his speech next week the deployment of additional troops is not open-ended. His commanders, however, will want Obama to steer clear of setting a firm date for them to begin withdrawing. They will instead be working to achieve a list of targets, such as reducing attacks, securing population centers and training Afghan forces. McChrystal is likely to face difficult questions in Congress on how long he needs the additional forces.

For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here

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