Obama to deploy 17,000 to ‘stabilize’ Afghanistan
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has ordered the first combat deployments of his presidency, saying Tuesday that he had authorized an additional 17,000 U.S. troops “to stabilize a deteriorating situation” in Afghanistan.
The new deployments, to begin in May, will increase the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan by nearly 50 percent, bringing it to 55,000 by mid-summer, along with 32,000 non-U.S. NATO troops. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said that “urgent attention and swift action” were required because “the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and al-Qaida … threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border.”
Taliban attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties last year reached the highest levels of the seven-year war, including 155 U.S. deaths. War-related civilian Afghan deaths – most blamed on the Taliban insurgents but many on U.S. airstrikes – also increased nearly 40 percent to 2,118 in 2008, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday. Extremist groups have expanded their hold on western Pakistan and launched terrorist attacks in major Pakistani cities.
Months ago, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, requested more than 30,000 additional troops this year, and an initial 6,000 arrived last month under orders signed by the Bush administration. But a senior White House official said that no other deployment decisions will be made until the Obama administration completes a strategic review of the Afghan war in late March.
Obama has said he wants to limit U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and administration officials have spoken of a more “regional” counterinsurgency strategy, including expanded assistance to Pakistan and diplomatic outreach to India, Iran, Russia and other neighboring countries.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was informed of the new deployments in a telephone call from Obama on Tuesday. Karzai, whose government Obama criticized last week as “detached” from what is going on in Afghanistan, publicly complained over the weekend that he had not yet heard from the new U.S. president.
The first additional U.S. contingent, the 8,000-strong 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade from Camp LeJeune, N.C., will arrive in late May. The Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., will arrive with 4,000 troops in late July, along with an additional 5,000 troops in still-undesignated smaller units.
The new troops will move into southern and eastern Afghanistan for combat expected to increase with the arrival of warmer weather, in addition to providing additional training for the Afghan army and security for national elections scheduled for August. Obama also plans to ask NATO to supply additional resources this year.
The administration sought Tuesday to couch the orders as what the senior official called “the beginning of the drawdown of troops in Iraq,” where both units had been scheduled to deploy. While that is technically true, White House decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq are proceeding on parallel but not necessarily overlapping tracks.
During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to draw down the U.S. presence in Iraq – currently at 146,000 troops – at a rate of one brigade a month for what he said would be a complete combat withdrawal within 16 months, with an unspecified “residual force” remaining.
During his first week in office, he instructed military planners to present options for withdrawal under various conditions on the ground and at various speeds. Those options have not yet been presented to the White House, although the senior official said Tuesday that Obama expects to receive them and make a decision on a timeline “in the near future.”