Obama’s gamble: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan

President Barack Obama plans to announce on Tuesday that he will send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a long-awaited war strategy shift that he hopes will defeat the Taliban and allow for a U.S. exit.

After three months of deliberations that some critics called dithering, Obama is to lay out his plan in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The high-stakes televised address will take place at 8 p.m. EDT.

The troop increase represents a major gamble by Obama. He came to office vowing a greater focus on Afghanistan but has faced skepticism from some key advisers about the wisdom of putting more American lives and money on the line for a government in Kabul widely seen as corrupt and inept.

In a nod to those concerns, Obama plans to devote part of his speech to stressing that the United States does not have an “open-ended commitment” in Afghanistan, but rather wants to hand over power to freshly trained Afghan forces and start withdrawing as soon as is practicable.

Obama’s challenge is to reverse what U.S. military commanders call a deteriorating situation due to a resurgent Taliban. He also aims to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to crack down on corruption and improve governance in exchange for U.S. support.

Obama is also expected to stress the need for Pakistan to do more to fight militants who have crossed into Afghanistan. The administration has said getting the policy right in Islamabad is just as important as in Kabul.

The White House would not detail Obama’s strategy, but other U.S. officials said he would announce that he has authorized sending about 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Currently there are roughly 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces there.

Obama is not expected to set a specific pullout date. The strategy envisages a phased troop buildup over the next 12 to 18 months followed by a gradual drawdown and handover to Afghan forces over three to five years, officials said.

A TOUGH SELL

The president may face a tough sell at home with many Americans weary of the war begun after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and wanting more focus on the weak U.S. economy.

James Monaghan of Watertown, New York, reflected this mood in talking about his 20-year-old daughter based at nearby Fort Drum and currently deployed in Iraq.

“She’s got kids. She’s got a husband … in the military as well. And it’s just, you know, I figure, it’s my personal opinion, it’s time for family to come home. Bring the kids home. You know, bring the kids home,” he said.

Obama’s announcement is likely set off a battle in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress over funding since his own Democrats oppose a big troop surge. The added cost could reach $20-40 billion. Some Democrats have talked of imposing a “war surtax” to pay for it.

Pentagon officials hope NATO member-states eventually will supplement the U.S. surge with up to 10,000 of their own troops and trainers, pushing the overall number of extra troops close to 40,000, the number recommended by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

Britain has said it expects countries to pledge only a further 5,000 troops on top of those sent by Obama.

The president worked the phones on Monday, talking to the leaders of Britain, France, Russia, Denmark and others. He planned to call Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday.

The new strategy will emphasize securing Afghan population centers and accelerating the training of Afghan security forces to gradually assume control.

At the same time, the United States will intensify counterterrorism operations, as advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, using unmanned aerial drones and special operations forces against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and possibly in Afghanistan’s more sparsely populated areas.