Obama says send 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan

ByDavid Jackson, USA TODAY
March 27, 2009, 10:59 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Obama announced Friday a proposal to stem the worsening insurgency in Afghanistan by sending 4,000 more U.S. troops and additional civilian aid workers, while also increasing aid to neighboring Pakistan.

Obama said his objective is to suppress the spreading insurgency by placing more emphasis on building local governments, wooing the civilian population with aid and providing more help to the Afghan army instead of a deploying a large number of combat troops.

"The situation is increasingly perilous," Obama said. "It has been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Obama linked the success of the plan to coordination with other nations in the region, such as Russia, India and Pakistan, and with greater help from NATO allies in Europe.

Key elements of the plan include:

•Sending the 4,000 new troops, who would train Afghan soldiers and police. The plan includes a goal of having 134,000 soldiers in the Afghan army, up from about 65,000 soldiers now. "That is how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our troops home," Obama said.

Adding the extra trainers is "an excellent idea," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's Republican opponent for the presidency last year. "The Afghan army has to be dramatically increased."

•Creating a standing network for talks between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Our nations will meet regularly," Obama said, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates leading the talks.

•Pushing for passage of two bipartisan congressional plans to provide more economic aid to Pakistan. One, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., would increase non-military aid by $1.5 billion a year for five years. The second, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., would create "opportunity zones" in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where many Taliban insurgents now hide.

•Sending hundreds more civilian aid workers to Afghanistan "to advance security, opportunity and justice," Obama said. Clinton, he said, would push for more civilian aid from "our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations" at an international conference next week in the Netherlands.

•Increasing the budget for inspector generals in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to weed out "unaccountable spending, no-bid contracts and wasteful reconstruction," Obama said. Previous studies of U.S. civilian aid programs have found significant problems in U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan. Last month, USA TODAY reported that six different audits conducted last year by USAID's inspector found only one program working largely as it was supposed to.

•Using the U.N. to create a new "Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan" that will bring together NATO allies, Russia, China, India, Central Asian republics, nations in the Persian Gulf and Iran. "None of these nations benefit from a base for al-Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos," Obama said. "All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development."

The latest troop commitment gives Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander there, roughly the amount of troops he said he needed late last year. McKiernan asked for double the 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. President Bush committed 6,000 troops, and Obama's commitment of 21,000 brings the total number of troops to 59,000.

The plan could increase the $2 billion monthly cost for Afghanistan by 60%.

Pakistan long sponsored the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan and harbored al-Qaeda terrorists until overthrown by U.S. forces in 2001. Many Taliban members remain in the mountainous border region between the two countries.

The strategy also includes more money for intelligence operations. Commanders need them to better understand power brokers, said Dennis Blair, director of the Office of National Intelligence.

Two-thirds of insurgents have local grievances and can be mollified by government, he said, while the other third are followers of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who was ousted in 2001. Those hard-core Taliban cannot be reconciled, he said.

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and John Fritze

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