Obama Seeks 'Strategy,' Not 'Straightjacket,' in Afghanistan

President Obama will announce the deployment of 4,000 additional U.S. Army troops to Afghanistan on Friday, part of strategy senior officials say will merge increased military efforts with a massive diplomatic push there and in neighboring Pakistan.

"Our focus is first and foremost on those who threaten the United States of America," a senior official said, referring to Al Qaeda and Taliban forces that now reside in unknown locations in Pakistan.

"That strategy is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda, its associates and destroy their safe havens," another senior official said during a White House briefing in advance of the president's speech. "This strategy is a strategy, it's not a straightjacket. It's designed to be flexible. We will re-asses as we go along."

The 4,000 Army trainers are in additional to the contingent of 17,000 Marines and Army personnel Obama already announced he would send into combat operations in Afghanistan. Those deployments will start this spring and continue through the summer. The Army trainers will focus their efforts on expanding the ranks and professionalism of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA).

Separately, the administration has won an as-yet-unannounced commitment of forces from France to increase training of Afghan police forces.

"Ultimately the Afghan national forces need to take the lead in securing their country. This increase in number and intensity around the (training) mission will enable us to have them take that lead on a faster pace and reach the goals we have for what we think the necessary numbers are (for Afghan Army and police forces) on a quicker scale going forward."

The administration has set a goal of 134,000 fully trained Afghan Army forces and 82,000 fully trained police forces by the end of 2011. Currently, the Afghan Army has a force of about 75,000 and the number of fully trained Afghan police is less than 40,000.

Obama will also send "hundreds" of civilian State Department and personnel from other US agencies to improve Afghanistan's ability to govern itself -- a tacit acknowledgement that the government led by President Hamid Karzai has failed to win Obama's full confidence.

"It makes no sense to just send more soldiers to Afghanistan," the official said. "You also have to send civilian specialists to help the Afghan authorities develop agriculture, develop governance, root out corruption, and beat the narcotics trade."

The administration also intends to focus new efforts on Pakistan, principally involving regular diplomatic engagement led by special envoy Richard Holbrooke. The U.S. intends to conduct bi-lateral talks with Pakistan every six-to-eight weeks and U.S-Pakistan-Afghanistan meetings once every three months.

"That's a fundamental shift," one senior official said, describing the new strategy as one that defines the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban as a two-nation conflict that requires intensive military and diplomatic efforts. "We recognize Pakistan has a complex, complicated relationship with some of these terrorists groups. Some of these terrorists groups have grown up within the Pakistani system, but many of them have now become Frankensteins which threaten the freedom of Pakistan."

The new strategy will also seek to increase U.S. economic aid to Pakistan's new civilian government. Obama tomorrow will ask Congress to commit $1.5 billion a year for each of the next five years to economic development aid to Pakistan. The president will also seek to "increase Pakistan's capabilities against insurgents, terrorists and militants." As an example, one official said, Obama will try to increase Pakistan's "air mobility capability to control their western border."

Increasing Pakistani air power in the West could alleviate the need for U.S. forces to use drones to target Al Qaeda operatives. That could reduce domestic political pressure on the Pakistani government to protest such U.S. air-strikes. Even with these new initiatives, senior officials admitted they are still not completely comfortable that some elements of Pakistan's military or intelligence forces are not aligned with or sympathetic toward Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

"All of this, of course, is going to have to be done in a way in which we are ensured that Pakistan will take the appropriate measures against militancy, terrorism, and insurgency," one official said. "We've made that very clear in our conversations with the Pakistanis."

The additional Army trainers will, when added to the 17,000 already scheduled, boost U.S. forces by 21,000 this year. That's on top of the roughly 9,000 additional forces former President Bush deployed in late 2008.

That fits, Obama officials said, with the request submitted by Army Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a force increase this year. But it falls short of McKiernan's overall request of Obama for 35,000 additional troops in by the end of 2010. Officials said Obama will decide whether to meet McKiernan's full troop request later.

"This gives him (McKiernan) everything he has asked for at this time," the official said. "It seems prudent to us to evaluate their impact in the fall and see what affect 30,000 more American Marines and soldiers had before we make any additional decisions on troop numbers. And Gen. McKiernan is in the same place. He's going to want to see what's the impact of having those forces on the ground."