WASHINGTON -President Barack Obama ordered his first major deployment of U.S. combat troops yesterday, sending 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan for what he described as an urgent bid to stabilize a deteriorating and neglected country.
The deployment marks a sizable intensification of the war effort and a new commitment of U.S. resources to the Afghanistan campaign.
In a statement announcing the troop increase, Obama directed veiled criticism at the Bush administration, noting that the request for the troops from Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had been pending for months.
"This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires," Obama said.
The troops will be used in Afghanistan, but in a statement announcing the troop increase, Obama mentioned the threat of al-Qaida from elsewhere in the region, including havens in Pakistan.
Just this week, the government in Islamabad struck a deal that was widely seen as ceding much of its authority to militants in the region known as Swat. Such developments have prompted fears that forays by militants into Afghanistan could accelerate in the spring and summer.
The deployment announced yesterday is "focused on Afghanistan, but clearly the situation in the region is taken into account," said a senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Military officials have been careful not to call the buildup a "surge," the term the Bush administration used for the troop buildup in Iraq in 2007, noting that the escalation in Afghanistan could be needed for years.
But senior defense officials said that they believe they must quickly begin to show results in Afghanistan, roll back Taliban advances and bring a measure of stability to the country.
"These troops are going to help us counter Taliban territorial advances, deny safe havens and create security for Afghan civilians," the senior administration official said.
The official also indicated that the deployment will expand the number of U.S. special operations forces in the country. Their role will be principally "to help train Afghans," the official said, but he added that "they're going to be involved in supplementing and supporting ongoing activities."
There are now 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, bolstered by the recent arrival of the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, which has begun operating in eastern Afghanistan.
The new deployment will total 17,000 troops, the senior administration official said. A force of 8,000 Marines, consisting of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will reach southern Afghanistan this spring. The Marine unit contains infantry, helicopters, fighter planes and support elements.
This summer, 4,000 soldiers from the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade, part of the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., will go to Afghanistan, along with an additional 5,000 support troops.
The deployment is Obama's response to a long-standing request from commanders in Afghanistan for more troops. The commanders have sought four more combat brigades, aviation units and other support, representing an increase of more than 20,000 troops.
The new contingent contains the equivalent of three combat brigades, matching the number of brigades dedicated to combat duty now in Afghanistan.
The official said that all the troops will be in place "in advance of the national elections" in Afghanistan, scheduled for Aug. 20.
In his statement, Obama said his plans to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq will give him the flexibility to build up the force in Afghanistan. There are about 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama has not detailed plans for reductions but has said he wants combat units out of the country by next year.The troop escalation comes with risks, including the possibility that the number of Afghan civilians killed could rise further.
A United Nations report issued yesterday said the number of civilians killed had risen nearly 40 percent in the past year, from 1,523 in 2007 to 2,118 in 2008. The report said it was the highest civilian death toll since the first year of the war in Afghanistan.
The report blamed the rise in civilian deaths on the intensification of the conflict in the past two years. More than half of the deaths, 1,160, were blamed on militants; 828 were attributed to Afghan and international forces. The cause of 130 deaths could not be determined.
Airstrikes accounted for 552 civilian casualties in 2008, about a quarter of the civilians killed. But increasing the number of ground forces could also make international forces less dependent on U.S. airpower for backup.