- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The White House said President Obama could use an unusual evening war council session Monday to lock in his long-awaited decision on whether to commit tens of thousands of new U.S. forces to the stalemated war in Afghanistan.

Military officials and others said they expect Mr. Obama to settle on a middle-ground option that would deploy an eventual 32,000-to-35,000 U.S. forces to the 8-year-old conflict.

That rough figure has stood as the most likely option since before Mr. Obama’s last large war council meeting earlier this month, when he tasked military planners with rearranging the timing and makeup of some of the deployments.

The president has said with increasing frequency in recent days that a big part of the rethinking of options that he ordered had to do with building an exit strategy into the announcement - in other words, revising the options presented to him to clarify when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government and under what conditions.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said to reporters Monday it’s “not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out.”

Mr. Obama was holding the 10th meeting of his Afghanistan strategy review since mid-September on Monday night, with a large cast of foreign policy advisers, to go over that revised information from war planners.

In the 90-minute session in the Situation Room, “they’ll go through some of the questions that the president had, some additional answers to what he’d asked for, and have a discussion about that,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The meeting was arranged for the unusual nighttime slot to accommodate Mr. Obama’s packed public schedule Monday and the fact that many of his top advisers were leaving town for the Thanksgiving holiday. No more war council meetings are on the calendar.

The presidential spokesman said it was possible Obama could lock in a decision at Monday’s meeting or that it could come “over the course of the next several days.”

In either case, it will not be announced this week, he said.

The force infusion expected by the military would represent most, but not all, the troops requested by Mr. Obama’s war commander. The retailored war plan would blends elements of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s counterterror strategy with tactics more closely associated with the CIA’s unacknowledged war to hunt down terrorists across the border in Pakistan.

Gen. McChrystal presented options ranging from about 10,000 to about 80,000 forces, and told Mr. Obama he preferred an addition of about 40,000 atop the record 68,000 in the country now, officials have said.

Mr. Obama has already ordered an expansion of 21,000 troops since taking office. The war has worsened on his watch, and public support has dropped as U.S. combat deaths have climbed.

The additional troops would be concentrated in the south and east of Afghanistan, the areas where the U.S. already has most of its forces, military officials said. The new troops that already went this year were directed to help relieve Marines stretched to the limit by far-flung postings in Helmand province and that would continue, while the U.S. effort would expand somewhat in Kandahar.

The increase would include at least three Army brigades and a single, larger Marine Corps contingent, officials said.

The White House is aiming for an announcement by Mr. Obama by the middle of next week, after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break.

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