Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Obama draws to end of Afghan review: White House

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama is nearing the end of his Afghanistan war review, the White House said, as a report said the administration may pick a plan to secure 10 major population centers.

Obama will meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, to hear input on future Afghan and Pakistan policy from all branches of military services, as he edges towards a fateful decision on whether to deploy thousands more troops.

Multiple signs that Obama may be nearing a decisive moment followed the deaths of eight more US soldiers on the battlefield, making October the bloodiest month for American forces since the war began in 2001.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that Obama's meeting with the joint chiefs was a sign the president was "getting, certainly, toward the end" of the policy review.

Gibbs repeated that Obama would make a final decision on Afghanistan, and General Stanley McChrystal's request for at least 40,000 more counter-insurgency troops "in the coming weeks."

The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Obama's advisers, after weeks of in-depth meetings, were coalescing around a strategy aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers in Afghanistan.

Stressing the president had yet to make a decision, the Times said the debate was not about whether to send more troops but how many more would be needed to safeguard most vital parts of the country.

The report mentioned four brigades, of about 4,500 troops each, that might form part of the new strategy.

Cities meriting protection would include Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat and Jalalabad, the paper said.

There was no immediate White House comment on the report.

Obama is under intense pressure, as rising violence in Afghanistan brings more US fatalities and a dip in popular support for a conflict that has now dragged on for eight years.

Eight more US soldiers died in bomb attacks in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, making October the deadliest month for US forces in the eight-year conflict.

Speculation is rife in Washington over whether Obama will reveal his hand before heading off on an eight-day trip to Asia on November 11.

Last week, Obama said that he may make up his mind before the Afghan re-run election on November 7, but may not announce his decision.

The US capital was also buzzing after the resignation of a diplomat who publicly criticized the Afghan war.

Matthew Hoh, 36, was the senior State Department official in Afghanistan's Zabul province -- a hotbed of Taliban militancy -- until last month when he became the first US official known to have resigned in protest at the conflict.

In a letter to his bosses, Hoh described the United States as "a supporting actor" in Afghanistan's decades-old civil war, adding that he had "lost understanding of and confidence in" the US mission.

Gibbs said Obama had read the Washington Post's report on Hoh's resignation but had not seen the letter himself.

Senator John Kerry, meanwhile, who last week helped convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to embrace the run-off vote after a fraud-tainted first round, further stirred the pot on Obama's decision.

A week after saying it would be "common sense" for Obama to put his decision on hold until after the Afghan election, Kerry said he would be "surprised" if Obama did not announce his decision before leaving for Asia.

On Monday, Kerry declared that McChrystal's plan goes "too far, too fast."

Obama, after being accused of "dithering" by former vice president Dick Cheney, told a military audience in Florida that he would never "rush" the decision to ask Americans to risk their lives in a war half a world away.

The latest attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, claimed by the Taliban, ocurred a day after 14 US soldiers and narcotics agents died in helicopter crashes.

They brought the number of Americans killed to at least 53 for the month, compared with 51 killed in August, the next deadliest month for the US.

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