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Jonathan S. Landay, John Walcott and Nancy A. Youssef , Published November 24 2009

Obama finalizes plan to send 34,000 troops to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama met Monday evening with his national security team to finalize a plan to dispatch some 34,000 additional U.S. troops over the next year to what he’s called “a war of necessity” in Afghanistan, U.S. officials told McClatchy Newspapers.

Obama is expected to announce his long-awaited decision Dec. 1, followed by meetings on Capitol Hill aimed at winning congressional support amid opposition by some Democrats who are worried about the strain on the U.S. Treasury and whether Afghanistan has become a quagmire, the officials said.

The U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly and because, one official said, the White House is incensed by leaks on its Afghanistan policy that didn’t originate in the White House.

They said the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, could arrive in Washington as early as Sunday to participate in the rollout of the new plan, including testifying before Congress toward the end of next week.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry also are expected to appear before congressional committees.

As it now stands, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.; the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.; and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan – to which the U.S. has long been committed – and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to brief America’s NATO allies after next week’s announcement, and the allies are to meet again on Dec. 7 in Belgium to discuss whether some other nations might contribute additional troops.

The Monday evening meeting was the ninth that Obama has held on the crisis in Afghanistan, where the worsening war entered its ninth year last month. This year has seen violence reach unprecedented levels as the Taliban and allied groups have gained strength and expanded their reach.

A U.S. military official used the term “decisional” to describe Monday evening’s meeting among Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Gates, Clinton, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Eikenberry and senior U.S. military commanders.

The administration’s plan contains “off-ramps,” points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or “begin looking very quickly at exiting” the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

“We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that’s it,” the U.S. defense official said.

It’s “not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

The approach is driven in part by concerns that Afghan President Hamid Karzai won’t keep his promises to root out corruption and support political reforms, and in part by growing domestic opposition to the war, the U.S. officials said.

As McClatchy Newspapers reported last month, the Obama administration has been quietly working with U.S. allies and Afghan officials on an “Afghanistan Compact,” a package of political reforms and anti-corruption measures that it hopes will boost popular support for Karzai and erase the doubts about his legitimacy raised by his fraud-tainted re-election.

The British government is offering to host a conference early next year to win international support for the compact.

Last week, Clinton suddenly adopted a more conciliatory tone toward Karzai, whom she and other administration officials had been pressing to clean up the rampant corruption and cut his ties to local warlords, some of whom traffic in opium.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she said that Karzai had demonstrated “good faith” and added: “Well, there are warlords, and there are warlords.”

As part of its new plan, the administration, which remains skeptical of Karzai, will “work around him” by working directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy Newspapers.