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Obama Will Announce 34,000-Troop Escalation in Afghanistan 'Within Days'

Obama faces a U.S. public sharply divided on the war and calls from some Democratic allies to set a flexible timetable for withdrawal.
 
 
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WASHINGTON (AFP) - U.S. President Barack Obama will announce a history-shaping decision "within days" on whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan with tens of thousands more troops, the White House said Tuesday.

Aides declined to comment on news reports that Obama would use a prime-time speech Tuesday to unveil plans to try to turn the worsening conflict around by ordering some 34,000 more U.S. soldiers to the strife-torn country.

Obama faces a U.S. public sharply divided on the war and calls from some Democratic allies to set a flexible timetable for withdrawal eight years after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

After months of deliberations, under fire from Republican foes for "dithering" on a decision, Obama held his ninth and final strategy session with top commanders and national security aides for two hours late Monday.

"After completing a rigorous final meeting, President Obama has the information he wants and needs to make his decision and he will announce that decision within days," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Obama has been weighing requests from his handpicked Afghan war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, to send up to 40,000 more troops, even as resurgent Islamist fighters have made 2009 the deadliest year for U.S. and allied forces.

The U.S. president, who came to office vowing victory in what he described as a war neglected by predecessor George W. Bush, could also announce a shift in how, and where, U.S. and allied troops and trainers operate.

The United States has some 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, battling the Taliban Islamist militia and its Al-Qaeda allies in a bloody conflict that some worry may be destabilizing the country's nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.

NATO allies, whose contributions bring foreign forces in Afghanistan to about 110,000, was expected to take up the question of sending more troops at upcoming gatherings of the military alliance December 3-4 and on December 7.

A high-level U.S. team briefed NATO allies in Brussels "two weeks ago" and "most of our key allies have a very good idea of where we are headed, even if a final decision isn't (yet) made," said a U.S. administration official.

Britain has pushed NATO to contribute another 5,000 troops, but a NATO military commander warned Tuesday against expecting "many real reinforcements," saying the alliance might choose to extend a temporary deployment of several thousand troops that provided security during Afghan elections in August.

That disputed political contest ultimately resulted in another five-year term for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who faces intense pressure from Washington to battle corruption and deliver key services.

The top U.S. military commander, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned in September that he considered the Afghan government's credibility problems at home to be a menace "equal to the threat from the Taliban."

Roughly half of Americans support sending tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, while just 45 percent say they are in favor of the war, according to a new opinion poll released by CNN.

Obama faces pressure in the U.S. Congress from Republicans foes who favor escalation and accuse him of "dithering" and from Democratic allies who see the war's cost as sucking hundreds of billions from much-needed projects at home.

A handful of senior Democratic lawmakers have proposed creating a special tax, chiefly on high-income earners, to pay for the war, while one Democratic senator, Russell Feingold, has pushed for a flexible withdrawal timetable.

Some Democrats fret privately that Obama's time in office could be defined by a decision to escalate an inherited and increasingly unpopular conflict, as the Vietnam War ultimately ate away at Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

Representative Buck McKeon, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that "any further delay would be a disservice" to those awaiting Obama's decision, "especially our troops and their families."

Obama on Monday sought the advice of top officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a videoconference meeting joined by McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who has been at odds with the general.

In diplomatic cables leaked earlier this month, Eikenberry -- a retired army general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 -- warned against more troops until Karzai gets a grip on rampant corruption.