President Barack Obama said he is sending 30 000 more US troops to Afghanistan by next summer to speed the battle against the Taliban and plans to start bringing some home in 18 months
The goal, Obama said in a prime-time televised address, will be to fight the Taliban, secure key population centres and train enough Afghan security forces so they can take over.
Obama’s gamble that a troop surge will turn around a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan marked a defining moment in his presidency.
Trying to convince sceptical Americans, Obama recalled the spirit of unity after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda in 2001 and warned that the militants were plotting fresh attacks.
"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow," he told cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.
The accelerated timetable Obama unveiled, after a three-month strategy review, surprised some Pentagon planners who had expected a 12- to 18-month period for deploying forces to bolster the 68 000 US troops already in the war zone.
Major US troop movements are likely to begin in January and all 30 000 troops should be in place by the end of August, defence officials said.
The head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said after Obama’s speech that he expected "at least 5000 more forces from other countries in our alliance and possibly a few thousand more."
Beyond the United States, members of the alliance now have about 42,000 soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
‘Vital national interest’
The US troop surge will cost about $30 billion this fiscal year, Obama said.
"As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30 000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," he said.
These US troops plus the NATO contingent, Obama said, "will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
Under that timeframe, the soldiers would begin returning home before Obama’s expected re-election bid in 2012.
Obama made clear any drawdown would be contingent on security conditions on the ground at the time, giving him some leeway to change his schedule if needed.
The vanguard of the US build-up is expected to be the swift deployment of 9000 Marines into some of the most dangerous parts of the country Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand.
Obama’s speech had many audiences at home and abroad.
He attempted to straddle the political divide in Washington, seeking to satisfy Republican demands for more troops while trying to convince war-weary Americans and fellow Democrats that the troops will not stay there long.
And he sought to reassure NATO allies and the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he was not abandoning the effort, while pressuring them to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain.
Initial reaction was positive, although Republicans worried that his setting a July 2011 deadline to start a pullout would send the wrong message to US allies.
"A withdrawal date only emboldens al Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight," said Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senior administration officials said Obama’s decision to start bringing the troops home by July 2011 represents a faster exit timetable than any of the options presented to him during the three-month review of Afghan policy.
Obama defended his decision and promised any pullout would be done responsibly.
"The absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," he said.
The anticipated $30 billion needed to fund the troop surge will push the cost of military operations in Afghanistan to nearly $95 billion for this fiscal year, eclipsing the $61 billion to be spent in the same period on the Iraq war.