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New strategy for Afghanistan taking shape

RELATED STORY: Britain reaffirms Afghan commitment

Though an official announcement has not yet been set, the contours of a revamped Afghanistan war strategy are beginning to take shape.

Several reports this week say that President Barack Obama has settled on some of the recommendations made in various reviews of war policy and strategy being conducted by the administration and the military.

More than seven years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaida terrorists, the war effort has become bogged down, U.S. and foreign military officials have said. A resurgent Taliban has stepped up its attacks — particularly in southern Afghanistan — and civilian and military casualties are at all-time highs.

According to a New York Times report on Thursday, a centerpiece of the new strategy would be to more than double the number of Afghan security forces in the country.

That would set a goal of nearly 400,000 Afghan troops, nearly three times what American officials had estimated in 2002, the Times reported. The increase in security forces could cost an additional $10 billion to $20 billion over the next six years.

U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan have repeatedly stressed the need for more — and more highly trained — Afghan forces. But that would also mean sharply increasing the number of military and civilian training teams, which are already at a premium.

Currently, the Afghan army has around 90,000 troops and the Afghan National Police has around 80,000 members.

The new plan would bring the number of army troops to around 260,000, officials said.

Obama has already ordered an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to the country this year.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported hundreds of additional U.S. diplomats and civilian officials will be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the new civil-military regional strategy that President Obama’s top national security advisers have prepared. The leaders of the proposed civilian team will be Peter W. Galbraith, who will be the deputy to the top United Nations official on the ground, and Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., who will get the title of deputy ambassador to boost the diplomatic power of the U.S. Embassy.

The plan calls for other civilian officials to be drawn from government departments such as Agriculture and Justice, the Post said, and hundreds of new full-time-yet-temporary positions are planned under a program authorized by then-President George W. Bush days before he left office.

Another key to the new strategy will be expanding efforts — both political and military — in Pakistan. Indeed, officials have been referring to "AFPAK," in an effort to cement the idea that the war in Afghanistan cannot be thought of independently of issues in Pakistan.

Militants have long received shelter and support in the autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and Islamic extremists have been expanding their reach to other areas of Pakistan.

The U.S. has repeatedly struck targets on the Pakistani side of the border and, in at least one instance, has conducted a ground raid.

The Obama administration is looking at a wide set of options, ranging from scaling back to a counter-terrorism and training force, to pushing a wider counter-insurgency campaign throughout the country.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Wednesday that he has struggled to decide on a new strategy for Afghanistan, but that those involved in the White House initiative are on the same page.

"It’s hard work, frankly," he said, "This is an area where I’ve been somewhat uncertain in my own mind what the right path forward is."

Gates said at a Pentagon press briefing he was especially uneasy about making "an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops," that would leave too large of a footprint in Afghanistan. "I worry that the Afghans come to see us as not their partners and allies but as part of their problem."

The secretary continued to defer to the White House and National Security Council on inquiries about when the strategy would be released and implemented. But the plan is shaping up to be more than just another policy statement.

"My sense, looking at the draft, is that it’s pretty specific," he said.

With a buildup of forces in Afghanistan bringing a long to-do list from Washington, Gates assured that Osama bin Laden is still at the top of his most wanted list, though public expectations of finding the terrorist leader may not reflect the difficult reality of a global manhunt.

"I think too many people go to too many movies. Finding these guys is really hard," the secretary said.


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