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Obama Closes In On Afghan Troop Increase

Foot patrol in Helmand, Afghanistan with Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Marines in Helmand come under near daily attack as they attempt to clear the area.
Martin Smith for FRONTLINE
Foot patrol in Helmand, Afghanistan with Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Marines in Helmand come under near daily attack as they attempt to clear the area.

President Obama is expected to address the nation early next week, saying he will send a sizable force of additional troops to Afghanistan, sources tell NPR.

The tentative plan is for the president to make his announcement Dec. 1, followed shortly thereafter by testimony on Capitol Hill by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Also expected to brief Congress is the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The central issue is how many more U.S. forces will be sent to fight a resurgent Taliban and train Afghan forces. There are now 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

McChrystal is pressing for an additional 40,000 troops. Sources say the president is expected to send a sizable force, though it's uncertain whether he will agree to the precise number McChrystal wants. If he makes a decision within the next week to send more troops, the forces likely won't arrive in Afghanistan until March.

Obama called his war council together Monday night in the White House situation room as he moved toward a decision.

The president has said he would announce his plans by year's end. He first called the high-powered national security team together in August as he began wrestling with a new plan for Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where the al-Qaida leadership is believed to be hiding.

The White House said Obama could use Monday's session to lock in his long-awaited decision on whether to commit tens of thousands of new U.S. forces to the stalemated war.

McChrystal has said more U.S. forces were needed to head off a U.S. failure in the fight against Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Military officials and others told The Associated Press they expect Obama to settle on a middle-ground option that would deploy an eventual 32,000 to 35,000 U.S. forces to the eight-year-old conflict.

That rough figure has stood as the most likely option since before Obama's last large war council meeting earlier this month, when he tasked military planners with rearranging the timing and makeup of some of the deployments.

The president has said with increasing frequency in recent days that a big piece of the rethinking of options that he ordered had to do with building an exit strategy into the announcement — in other words, revising the options presented to him to clarify when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government and under what conditions.

As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it to reporters on Monday, it's "not just how we get people there, but what's the strategy for getting them out."

Monday night's meeting included a large cast of foreign policy advisers, who were to go over revised information from war planners.

In a session expected to last 90 minutes, "they'll go through some of the questions that the president had, some additional answers to what he'd asked for, and have a discussion about that," Gibbs said.

The meeting was arranged for the unusual nighttime slot to accommodate both Obama's packed public schedule on Monday and the fact that many of his top advisers were leaving town for the holiday. No more war council meetings are on the calendar.

The presidential spokesman said it was possible Obama could lock in a decision at Monday's meeting or that it could come "over the course of the next several days." In either case, it will not be announced this week, he said.

The force infusion expected by the military would represent most but not all of the troops requested by Obama's war commander, for a retailored war plan that blends elements of McChrystal's counterterrorist strategy with tactics more closely associated with the CIA's unacknowledged war to hunt down terrorists across the border in Pakistan.

McChrystal presented options ranging from about 10,000 to about 80,000 forces and told Obama he preferred an addition of about 40,000 atop the record 68,000 in the country now, officials have said.

Obama has already ordered a significant expansion of 21,000 troops since taking office. The war has worsened on his watch, and public support has dropped as U.S. combat deaths have climbed.

According to officials who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity:

— Additional troops would be concentrated in the south and east of Afghanistan, the areas where the U.S. already has most of its forces.

— The effort already begun to help relieve Marines stretched to the limit by far-flung postings in Helmand province would continue, while the U.S. effort would expand somewhat in Kandahar.

— The increase would include at least three Army brigades and a single, larger Marine Corps contingent.

U.S. war planners would be forgoing the option of increasing U.S. fighting power in the north, a once-quiet quadrant where insurgents have grown in strength and number in the past year. But McChrystal's recommendation never called for a quick infusion there.

In the absence of large additions of ground forces, dealing with the north would probably require relying more heavily on air power, two military officials told the AP. Any such additional airstrikes would be more successful if, as U.S. officials hope, Pakistan turns up the heat on Taliban militants on their side of the border.

As originally envisioned by McChrystal, the additional U.S. troops would begin flowing in late January or after, on a deployment calendar that would be slower and more complex than that used to build up the Iraq "surge" in 2007. McChrystal's schedule for full deployment has it taking nearly two years, military officials said.

Said Obama in a television interview last week: "At the end of this process, I'm going to be able to present to the American people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake, what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take."

Congressional hearings would immediately follow that address, including testimony from McChrystal.

On the topic of increased costs in Afghanistan, Gibbs said that the subject of a war tax, suggested by some leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, has not come up yet in the president's extensive meetings with his war advisers.