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White House review of strategy favors expanding Afghan army

The Bush administration, in the midst of a wide review of its war strategy in Afghanistan, is likely to recommend soon to the incoming Obama administration that the U.S. push for further expansion of the Afghan army as the surest path to an eventual U.S. withdrawal, The Associated Press has learned.

It's too late in President Bush's tenure for a major change of direction in Afghanistan, but the White House wants to produce a kind of road map for the next administration, not just in terms of military effort but also in other areas such as integrating U.S. and international civilian and military aid.

The strategy review, which began in September amid increasing militant violence and a growing U.S. and allied death toll, is being coordinated at the White House and is expected to be presented by December. Defense officials would discuss emerging conclusions only on condition of anonymity.

The Bush administration is likely to endorse fulfilling a standing request by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, for about 20,000 additional U.S. troops in 2009. But it has concluded that the emphasis increasingly should be on Afghan forces taking the lead.

A chief advocate of focusing more on speeding the training and equipping of a bigger Afghan army is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said last week that it represents the long-term answer in Afghanistan.

Gates also has emphasized limiting the depth of U.S. military involvement in a country that has ground down foreign armies over centuries of conflict.

“We will be making a terrible mistake if this ends up being called America's war,” Gates said Oct. 31 after presiding at a ceremony in Tampa, Fla., where Gen. David Petraeus was installed as head of U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

“What I would like to see, and, I think, what everybody would like to see, is the most rapid possible further expansion of the Afghan military forces because this needs to be an Afghan war, not an American war and not a NATO war,” Gates told reporters.

President-elect Obama has said he would send at least two or three more combat brigades. One brigade typically has 3,500-4,000 soldiers.

Obama also has called for more training of Afghan security forces as well as more nonmilitary assistance.

Petraeus is conducting his own review of his command area, including Afghanistan. It is just getting under way and is due to be finished in February, after Obama presumably has his national security team in place.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also is conducting a strategy review focusing on the way ahead in the tribal areas of western Pakistan along the Afghan border, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have established havens from which to launch attacks across the border. Mullen's review is meant to find a strategy for Afghanistan that takes the border issue fully into account.

There are about 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Another brigade is due to arrive in January; beyond that, decisions on any further additions will be up to Obama.

Under a plan adopted by the U.S. and Afghan governments in September, the Afghan army is to grow to 134,000 soldiers by 2014, and it's not yet clear how many more soldiers the Bush administration's review will recommend.

The previous goal was 80,000, and the actual number in uniform now is about 68,000, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, who heads U.S. efforts to train and equip the Afghan security forces. The price tag for getting to the new target of 134,000 is an estimated $17 billion.

In a phone interview Friday from Kabul, Cone said he and the Afghans have fashioned a plan that would get to the 134,000 goal two years early – by the summer of 2012 – if he can get additional U.S. funding. Other limitations on growing faster include what Cone called “rampant corruption” among the Afghans, as well as a shortage of seasoned and reliable Afghan military professionals.

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