Wednesday, August 19, 2009

US looks to bolster combat troops in Afghanistan

The United States on Tuesday looked for ways to bolster combat troops in Afghanistan as President Barack Obama warned the war would not be "quick" and violence threatened this week's election. With Afghans heading into crucial presidential elections Thursday, US defense officials said the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was weighing cutting back desk jobs and other support staff in favor of combat missions. "The idea is use troops more effectively," a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told on Monday.

Reducing non-combat positions would mean "doing more with what you've got versus asking for more" troops, the official said. McChrystal has been taking a hard look at the war against Taliban insurgents amid widespread speculation he may soon ask Obama for additional US forces -- a politically charged issue at home and abroad. Cutting the number of support staff could mean the US general would make a more modest troop request, possibly easing pressure on Obama who faces rising anxiety over the war within his own party.

As candidates held rallies at the close of campaigning in Afghanistan, Obama on Monday defended the war as a necessary mission but warned of a difficult road ahead. "The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight," Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars service organization in the southwestern state of Arizona. "We won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy," Obama said.

The US president said the war was "fundamental" to defending Americans by depriving Al-Qaeda of a safe-haven to plot follow-on attacks to the September 11 strikes in 2001. Although he acknowledged an upsurge in "fierce" fighting in Afghanistan, he vowed to adapt US tactics and ensure the troops have the tools they need to do the job. There was further violence in Afghanistan on Tuesday, with suicide bombers killing 12 people and a rocket slamming into the presidential compound.

Obama, however, did not offer detailed insight into the evolving war strategy, which has seen thousands of troops and billions of US dollars pour into the country since Obama took office in January. US troop levels, currently at 62,000, are set to reach 68,000 in coming months, more than double the number in place at the start of the year. Obama has already ordered an additional 21,000 military personnel to the country ahead of Thursday's elections, in line with his vow to turn the US focus from Iraq to Afghanistan -- which he says poses a greater security threat.

As campaigning ended in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would remain impartial in the election and would work with whomever voters pick. "Like the Afghan people we want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate," she said. "We look forward to working with whomever the Afghan people select as their leaders for the next five years."

President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, is the frontrunner but a strong campaign by former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a run-off. Obama has adopted a cooler approach to Karzai compared to his predecessor George W. Bush, who heaped praise on the Afghan leader and frequently spoke to him by video link. Obama administration officials have been critical of corruption plaguing the Kabul government and alarmed by Karzai's alliance with a notorious warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

If Karzai wins, analysts say Washington will likely take a tougher line and demand Kabul do more to fight corruption in return for generous aid. The elections have been overshadowed by threats from the insurgents, who have warned that Afghans who take part will face reprisals.

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