In his first major military move as Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, on top of a smaller increase ordered by former-President Bush and already implemented.
The long-awaited announcement came in a written statement from the president. The statement says "the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action." President Obama says the Taliban has been "resurgent" in Afghanistan and that the al-Qaida terrorist network is supporting it from safe havens in Pakistan. The president says the troop increase is needed "to stabilize a deteriorating situation," which he says "has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires."
After reviewing a several-months-old request from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, endorsed by other senior officers and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Obama approved the deployment of two large combat units, one from the marines scheduled to arrive with a couple of months, and one from the army, expected to arrive several months later, along with thousands of support troops.
Pentagon officials say the total will come to 17,000, in addition to the 38,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan. And they say all the new troops will go to Afghanistan's troubled southern region, near the border with Pakistan.
General McKiernan has asked for one more combat brigade, which would bring the total to about 60,000, but President Obama has not made a decision on that.
The president's announcement Tuesday says the troop deployments do not pre-determine the outcome of the senior-level Afghanistan strategy review he has ordered. But he hinted at his thinking, saying he wants an approach with what he called "achievable goals" that utilizes "all elements" of U.S. national power.
He spoke about what he called "a comprehensive strategy" Tuesday in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. "I am absolutely convinced that we can not solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means. We're going to have to use diplomacy, we're going to have to use development," he said.
Secretary Gates has been a bit more specific, calling for limited goals, focused on preventing and eliminating terrorist safe havens, that can be achieved in three-to-five years. The president's strategy review is expected to be completed before the NATO summit at the beginning of April.
President Obama's deployment announcement came on the same day that a major independent research institute issued a report calling for urgent and significant changes in U.S. military strategy toward Afghanistan.
The report by the Rand Corporation says the United States needs a new "game-changing" strategy, emphasizing engagement with local officials, development of the Afghan security forces and fighting corruption. The report also says the United States and its allies need to help the Afghan government defend its borders, improve its relations with Pakistan and use its authority to manage foreign assistance, which the report says would increase its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
One of the Rand report's authors is Christine Fair. "Whether or not the Taliban remain in Afghanistan is really not our concern. What we really care about is that it doesn't become a safe haven for international terrorists seeking to harm us, our interests, or our assets," she said.
The Rand report says the United States and its allies need to be able to provide "sustainability" when they make gains on security, economic development or other issues.