Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Obama 'considering smaller Afghan troop option'

Barack Obama is considering sending large numbers of additional US forces to Afghanistan next year - but fewer than his war commander wants - US officials said today.

Such a narrowed military mission would escalate American forces to accomplish the commander's broadest goals, protecting Afghan cities and key infrastructure.

But the option's scaled-down troop numbers would probably cut back on General Stanley McChrystal's ambitious objectives, amounting to what one official described as "McChrystal Light".

Under the pared-down option, Gen McChrystal would be given fewer forces than the 40,000 additional troops he has asked for atop the current US force of 68,000, officials said.

Senior White House officials stressed, however, that the president had not settled on any new troop numbers and continued to debate other strategic approaches to the eight-year-old Afghanistan war.

Two officials said the troop numbers under the narrowed scenario would probably be lower than Gen McChrystal's preference, at least at the outset. They did not divulge exact numbers.

The stripped-down version of Gen McChrystal's plan would still adopt the commander's overall goals for a counter-insurgency strategy aimed at turning the corner against the Taliban next spring.

But that pared-down approach would reflect a shift in thinking about what parts of the war mission are most important and the intense political domestic debate over Afghan policy.

A majority of Americans either oppose the war or question whether it is worth continuing to wage, according to public opinion polls dating to when Mr Obama shook up the war's management and began a lengthy reconsideration of US objectives earlier this year.

Any expansion of the war will displease some congressional Democrats. If Mr Obama does not meet Gen McChrystal's request, Republicans are likely to accuse him of failing to give Gen McChrystal all of what he needs.

A stripped-down approach would signal caution in widening a war that is going worse this year than last despite intense US attention and an additional 21,000 US forces on Mr Obama's watch.

Fourteen Americans were killed Monday in Afghanistan in two helicopter crashes, and roadside bombings on Tuesday left eight US troops dead. October has been the worst month for US fatalities since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001.

But even if Gen McChrystal gets less than he wants from Mr Obama, the US may still end up adding more troops later in 2010. The most likely reason would be to fill voids left by some Nato allies considering troop cutbacks.

Defence secretary Robert Gates has pushed back hard against a faction of administration officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, who say much of the US national security objective in Afghanistan could be accomplished by concentrating on strikes at al Qaida along the Pakistan border.

That approach would hunt terrorists with techniques such as missile-loaded pilotless drones, and could require little or no additional US manpower.

Mr Obama meets the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military leaders who would have the responsibility for carrying out his strategy decisions, tomorrow.

White House officials said the president would continue to consider his options with advisers over the next couple of weeks, adding that other broad war council meetings may still be called during that period.

The White House preference is to announce the troop decision after Afghanistan's run-off presidential election on November 7, but before Mr Obama leaves for an unrelated foreign trip on November 11.

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