WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will outline plans on Tuesday to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer to speed the battle against the Taliban and will vow to start bringing some home in 19 months.
The accelerated timetable Obama will unveil in a high-stakes speech surprised some Pentagon planners who expected a 12- to 18-month period for deploying forces to bolster the 68,000 U.S. troops already in the war zone.
Obama was to speak at 8 p.m. EST at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, with the challenge of convincing war-weary Americans and leaders of his own Democratic Party of the need to step up the fight in the eight-year-old war launched after the September 11 attacks.
The troop increase, intended to provide a quick and powerful counterpunch to Taliban gains on the ground, will likely cost the cash-strapped U.S. Treasury an estimated $30 billion to $40 billion more per year.
Major U.S. troop movements are not expected before January and all 30,000 should be in place by the end of August, defense officials said. Obama expects NATO to announce a troop increase of its own on Friday.
Senior Obama administration officials said the president’s decision to start bringing the troops home by July 2011 represents a faster exit timetable than any of the options presented to him during a three-month review of Afghan policy.
Under that timeframe, the soldiers would begin returning home before Obama’s expected re-election bid in 2012.
“The strategy that he outlines will accelerate handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces and thus allow the United States to begin to transfer our forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July of 2011,” an official said.
Obama will not set a specific pullout date, a move likely to disappoint some Democrats who have been calling for a specific withdrawal date. One official said an ultimate withdrawal “will be determined by conditions on the ground.”
Obama is taking a political gamble by deepening U.S. involvement in the war.
He came to office vowing a greater focus on Afghanistan but, during the three-month debate over a new policy, Obama faced pressure from some top advisers to avoid putting more U.S. lives and money on the line when the government in Kabul is widely seen as corrupt and inept.
But Republicans and many national security experts argued that a withdrawal could ultimately weaken U.S. national security if al Qaeda again gained a foothold in the country.
Obama raised the pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a videoconference on Monday night.
He told Karzai that U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan were not open-ended and “must be evaluated toward measurable and achievable goals within the next 18 to 24 months,” the White House said.
Obama also spoke to Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari, promising him U.S. help against extremists.
Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich said Obama needed to focus on the economy rather than Afghanistan.
“An escalation of the war in Afghanistan at a time of such economic dislocation and hardship raises questions about America’s priorities and whether or not we are losing our way as we attempt to stride aside the globe as some Colossus,” Kucinich said.
The senior Obama officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, discounted criticism that setting a timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. forces might prompt Taliban fighters to lie low until U.S. troops leave.
“If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they are misjudging the president’s approach,” one official said.
The goal of the troop surge is to prevent the Taliban insurgents from returning to power in Afghanistan, protect key population centers, and stop any effort by al Qaeda elements to return to a safe haven there.
A primary mission of the deployment will be to train Afghan forces to take control of the country’s security. To that end, officials said Obama has directed that all U.S. combat forces partner with Afghan security forces for training purposes.
Obama is also expected to stress the need for neighboring Pakistan to do more to fight militants who have crossed into Afghanistan. The administration has said getting the policy right in Islamabad is just as important as in Kabul.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Phil Stewart, Ross Colvin, Susan Cornwell, Jeff Mason and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by John O'Callaghan