(Reuters) - The centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s revised war strategy in Afghanistan is expected to be the gradual deployment of about 30,000 more U.S. troops to secure population centers and train Afghan security forces.
Pentagon officials hope thousands of additional trainers from NATO member-states will eventually supplement the buildup, bringing the total size of the deployment to close to the 40,000 recommended by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to counter a resurgent Taliban.
Currently, there are roughly 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.
Obama’s strategy is expected to expand the existing counterinsurgency strategy but with a greater focus on protecting major Afghan population centers along with agricultural areas and transportation routes.
Obama wants to accelerate the training of Afghan army and police units to eventually take security responsibility from U.S. and NATO forces.
A transition to greater Afghan control could begin within the next year in parts of Afghanistan that are more stable, including the city of Herat near the Iranian border. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country’s security forces should be ready to take over from Western forces within his five-year term.
But a timeline for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan remains far from clear cut.
An eventual drawdown in Afghanistan could follow the Iraq model, under which U.S. forces could pull back and eventually out of city centers as Afghan forces take the lead.
The White House said it sees U.S. troops out of the country within the next eight to nine years. But the Pentagon has cautioned against setting any specific dates. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said any handover depends on conditions on the ground.
The counterinsurgency strategy proposed by McChrystal is expected to be combined with a stepped up counterterrorism campaign, advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, using unmanned aerial drones and special operations forces to combat Taliban and al Qaeda fighters along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The United States wants Pakistan to crack down on Taliban leaders and their allies organizing the insurgency from safe havens there, including the network headed by veteran Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. Islamabad has been reluctant to do so in the past, U.S. officials say, citing long-suspected links between the Haqqanis and elements of Pakistani intelligence.
Administration officials say Obama wants greater outreach to groups that fight alongside the Taliban but could be persuaded to lay down their weapons in exchange for a greater role in local governance.
The leading buildup option, an increase of 30,000-plus U.S. troops and trainers that NATO will be asked to supplement, has the backing of several of Obama’s top national security and military advisers, including Gates.
That would give McChrystal the resources to focus on securing Afghan population centers as well as move against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in outlying areas.
Discussions have focused on sending two additional brigades, totaling between 10,000 to 15,000 troops, to southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, a key Taliban stronghold.
Another brigade was also likely to be added in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.
Brigades range in size but generally include 3,500 to 4,000 troops. They can swell to over 5,000 troops if other units are attached to them. Marine brigades can be larger.
Administration opponents of the larger-scale buildup favor sending closer to 20,000 additional troops. That may be more politically palatable for Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. It would allow McChrystal to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police but would provide him with few additional resources for a broader counterinsurgency.
The smallest increase on the table would send another 10,000 to 15,000 troops to focus on training Afghan forces.
The Pentagon envisages carrying out the anticipated troop buildup in Afghanistan gradually at a pace of about one brigade per quarter, giving Obama the option of changing course before all of the new troops are in place.
The first large-scale brigade under the expected buildup, accompanied by support units, could arrive before spring, when fighting typically picks up. A top priority for war planners is reinforcing troops in southern Afghanistan around Kandahar.
Officials said Afghanistan’s crumbling infrastructure would make it difficult to field and equip more than a single brigade every three months, or approximately four a year.
That means a large buildup of forces in Afghanistan could stretch well into 2011, depending on how many additional troops Obama decides to send and what types of units are selected.
ANTI-CORRUPTION ‘COMPACT’ WITH AFGHAN GOVERNMENT
A key part of the emerging strategy would be a compact, or commitment, setting out benchmarks for Karzai’s government to crack down on corruption and improve governance. U.S. officials say getting Karzai to do so is critical to a successful counterinsurgency that hinges on Afghans supporting their government instead of the Taliban.
U.S. officials are divided on the prospects of success.
Gates sees no quick-fix to these problems and has suggested that the United States could threaten to withhold some aid contracts to pressure Karzai’s government to act.
Obama has asked his advisers for detailed cost estimates for expanding the war in Afghanistan, exposing divisions between the White House and the Pentagon on an issue that could have political consequences for Obama in the run-up to next year’s congressional elections.
The White House Office of Management and Budget estimates that it will cost about $1 million for each additional soldier sent to Afghanistan. That means a 30,000 to 40,000 troop surge would add approximately $30 billion to $40 billion a year to the war’s already soaring cost.
The Pentagon’s comptroller has, in contrast, estimated the operating cost of deploying and sustaining one additional soldier for a full year in Afghanistan at half that amount, or roughly $500,000.
War spending in Afghanistan has more than doubled over the last year, reaching $6.7 billion in June alone, and Pentagon officials worry that sticker shock could fuel congressional opposition to Obama’s expected buildup.
Reporting by Adam Entous in Washington; Editing by Jackie Frank and Eric Beech