WASHINGTON -President Barack Obama will deploy up to 4,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, beyond the 17,000 he authorized last month, as trainers and advisers to the Afghan army, according to a senior Pentagon official who has seen the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that Obama will unveil today.
Obama briefed House and Senate leaders at the White House Thursday afternoon on the strategy, while special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke outlined the plan to other lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The president telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari.
The result of military, intelligence and diplomatic reviews that began the day Obama took office, the strategy is expected to include major increases in U.S. military and development assistance to both countries. Hundreds more civilian officials will be sent to Afghanistan, where they will concentrate on the legal system, agriculture and improved governance.
The new plan is designed to reverse a sharp deterioration in the eight-year Afghan war, which saw increased levels of Taliban attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties last year. Although Obama will ask NATO governments to increase their military, civil and financial commitments to Afghanistan at an alliance summit next week, the strategy will mark an overall expansion of U.S. dominance of the war.
"The situation in Afghanistan is increasingly difficult, and time is of the essence," Lt. Gen Karl Eikenberry, Obama's nominee as ambassador to Afghanistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday morning. "There will be no substitute for more resources and sacrifice."
While additional U.S. combat troops will enhance the ability of the multinational coalition to hold ground in southern Afghanistan's Taliban strongholds, increased training and equipping of Afghan security forces is the ultimate exit strategy for the United States and NATO, administration officials said.
Afghanistan's defense minister has said he plans to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000 by 2011, but coalition forces until now have been unable to provide trainers and mentors, equipment and transport for the existing Afghan force.
The additional 4,000 U.S. troops, expected to deploy in June, are to fill that gap. In a sign of the importance the administration is placing on the mission, a brigade of the Army's vaunted 82nd Airborne Division is being broken into 10- to 14-member advisory teams, the Pentagon official said. Until now, the military has relied heavily on inexperienced National Guardsmen to fill out the teams.
"The change couldn't be more dramatic," said John Nagl, a former Army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan defense think tank. "The 82nd Airborne Division is the nation's shock force. They are the most elite troops in the Army. This shows how important the mission is to the Obama administration and the high priority the Army is giving it."
The deployment suggests a different approach from that taken by U.S. forces in Iraq, where the main focus was on using large U.S. combat brigades to protect the local population and decrease sectarian violence.
The U.S. teams, who will live and fight with Afghan forces, also provide a critical link to U.S. air support, should the fledgling Afghan forces be overwhelmed by Taliban fighters.
The assignment represents a major cultural shift for the service. Most rising Army officers have tried to avoid advisory duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring assignments with more traditional combat brigades. Advisory team jobs have been widely seen as career killers.
The total of 21,000 new troops, added to about 6,000 authorized by the Bush administration and deployed in January, will come close to reaching the total of 30,000 that Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. and NATO commander, had requested for this year in Afghanistan. They will bring the total U.S. component of the force to about 60,000. Non-U.S. NATO troops there now total about 32,000.