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Details leak out ahead of Obama’s big Afghanistan speech

As the White House briefs interested parties in anticipation of Tuesday’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy rollout, more and more details of the new strategy and President Obama’s announcement are leaking out. One high-level diplomatic source familiar with the details of new strategy confirmed to The Cable that Obama will announce the addition of 30,000 new U.S. soldiers ...

As the White House briefs interested parties in anticipation of Tuesday’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy rollout, more and more details of the new strategy and President Obama’s announcement are leaking out.

One high-level diplomatic source familiar with the details of new strategy confirmed to The Cable that Obama will announce the addition of 30,000 new U.S. soldiers and marines for Afghanistan and up to 6,000 more troops from international partners

The elements of the new strategy and the general outlines of the troop requests were being briefed to various interested parties both inside and outside the U.S. government as early as Friday. 

In his speech Tuesday at the West Point military academy, Obama will outline a mix of a new counterinsurgency-heavy approach for Afghanistan and a new counterterrorism-heavy approach toward Pakistan. The strategy will seek to retake space now controlled by the Taliban and engage more with the local population, while speeding the buildup of the Afghan National Security Forces.

The strategy will specify the premier goal of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as dismantling al Qaeda’s international capabilities, but the administration will not include any hard timelines for when success might be achieved or when U.S. troops might withdraw.

"We’re not going to be in Afghanistan forever, but we will stay long enough to do the job," is how the source described the president’s message. The new strategy will include new military, political, and intelligence-focused elements. While benchmarks will be included generally in the new strategy, the specifics of those benchmarks will remain largely private in the near term.

On the political front, the source said that Obama has decided to put increased pressure on the Afghan government to address issues of corruption and mismanagement by promising to hold Afghan President Hamid Karzai to new and higher standards of governance and the delivery of services, the source said.

The president is also expected to mention a new international conference on Afghanistan to be held in London on Jan. 28, with either Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend. (The conference was announced by British Prime Minister Gordon Brow this weekend.)

"The Conference will be an opportunity for the international community and the Afghan government to discuss security transition, governance, economic development, reintegration and reconciliation, and civilian leadership issues, including the endorsement of a civilian counterpart to the Commander of ISAF," National Security Council spokesman Michael Hammer said in a statement e-mailed to several reporters. "The conference is evidence of the sustained international commitment to Afghanistan and will build on the work that we expect the Foreign Ministers of ISAF countries to do together on 4 December at NATO in Brussels."

The number of 30,000 new U.S. troops represents four full combat brigades and an unspecified number of trainers for the Afghan Security Forces. This is less than the 40,000 identified as a medium risk option by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, earlier this year.

"Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely," McChrystal wrote in a classified assessment that was leaked to the Washington Post. "The key takeaway form this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change in our strategy and the way we think and operate."

The final troop decision is seen as a victory for Gates and National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who advocated a troop increase smaller than that sought by the uniformed military but larger than the idea pushed by others in the administration such as Vice President Joseph Biden.

On the Pakistani side, the U.S. and the Pakistani government have worked out a deal that would commit Washington to additional military aid, economic assistance, and intelligence cooperation as part of an expanded effort to combat extremists elements residing in Pakistan, according to the source.


What’s not settled is exactly what the Pakistanis would have to do in return for the added support. The two sides are in negotiations over what the source called a "grand bargain" that would involve Obama administration support for any of a number of Pakistani asks in exchange for the Pakistani government actually going after all extremist groups in Pakistan — including those focused on creating havoc in Afghanistan.

The outlines of this offer were communicated in a letter from Obama to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in a letter delivered personally by Jones. Zardari has yet to formally respond, according to the source.

"Obama is saying to the Pakistanis, if you commit 100 percent we will commit 100 percent," the source explained, adding that the details of exactly what will go on between the Obama administration and the Pakistani government will take weeks or more to iron out.

For that reason and because the White House is extremely aware of Pakistani sensitivities in the wake of the botched rollout of the Kerry-Lugar Pakistani aid bill, Obama is likely to "soft pedal" the Pakistani side of the new strategy during the new strategy announcement, the source said.

Also, the administration is expected to drop the use of the abbreviated term "Af-Pak," which angered many in both countries, while still maintaining the linkage of the U.S. approach to both nations as part of one comprehensive issue.

Top administration officials are already scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill beginning Wednesday.

The White House declined to comment on the details of the strategy as outlined by the diplomatic source.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin