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Obama's approval of additional troops to Afghanistan signals war focus shift
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U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced the decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, signaling the start of an American shift of its anti-terror war focus, or as some call it, a "refocus," to the Central Asian country.

Without disclosing the exact number of additional troops, the president said he has approved a Pentagon request to deploy a Marine Expeditionary Brigade later this spring and an Army Stryker Brigade this summer.

According to U.S. media reports that cited unidentified government and military officials, the Marine expeditionary brigade includes about 8,000 troops, and the Army brigade has about 4,000.

Officials said that an additional 5,000 support troops would be also deployed ahead of Afghan elections set for Aug. 20, making the total number of additional troops about 17,000.

Urgent needs, long-term consideration

Obama cited "urgent security needs" in explaining his first decision on a major overseas military deployment since taking over the White House on Jan. 20.

"I do it today mindful that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action," he said. "The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaida supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border."

The Afghanistan security situation has worsened since early 2008 with more roadside bombs and suicide explosions targeting the Afghan army and foreign troops. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the escalated violence.

U.S. ground military commanders have warned of having too few troops to respond in some areas, especially in central and eastern Afghanistan.

Apart from the urgent needs, the U.S. military buildup in Afghanistan was also driven by Obama administration's adjustment on anti-terror policies over the long haul.

During his presidential campaign, Obama criticized former President George W. Bush's decision to launch a war in Iraq that led to increased spending, high troop casualties and a poor international image.

He vowed to withdraw troops from Iraq and shift resources to Afghanistan, the country he considered the front line in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida militants who posed threats to America's security.

His policy was sustained by military, intelligence and congressional officials who have mostly agreed that the biggest challenge the U.S. is facing is in Afghanistan.

The decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was made after Obama concluded that the Iraq situation has greatly improved as local army and police can take on more security responsibilities.

In addition, some analysts suspect that the shift in focus has a more profound reason.

Known as the "crossroad of central Asia," the geopolitical value of Afghanistan is never underestimated by leading U.S. strategists.

More troubles ahead

Despite the troop increase, Obama stressed that it "does not pre-determine the outcome of" his ongoing review of a comprehensive Afghan strategy.

He said the Afghan issue can not be solved by military means alone and that it requires employing "all elements of our national power to fulfil achievable goals in Afghanistan."

Shortly after Obama's announcement, Congressional Republicans and Democrats called for a complete strategic review of U.S. policies toward the Afghan war.

"While I welcome today's announcement, I hope it is just the first step in a new comprehensive approach to Afghanistan. A major change in course is long overdue," said Republican Senator John McCain.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also highlighted the need for the "comprehensive strategic review of our policy that is currently underway."

Achievement of the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan depends, to a large extent, on coordination with its NATO allies, another major foreign force in the country.

With only two days before he goes to Canada as his first visit overseas, Obama in his statement called on America's "friends and allies" to cooperate in seeking the resources needed to succeed in the Afghanistan war.

At the Munich Security Conference held earlier this month, the U.S. government made no secret that Obama wants Germany and other European countries to increase their involvement in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission.

Germany and France have been reluctant to do so. The German government is particularly cautious on the issue as the country holds general elections in September.

What does new strategy look like?

The drive to stabilize Afghanistan must focus on cultivating local leaders, better training of Afghan troops and police, and pressing Kabul to fight corruption, a report by a U.S. think tank said Tuesday.

Security in Afghanistan should be rethought to address failures in the seven years since the ousting of the Islamic Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks, said the report published by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The top-down approach at nation-building that is focused on the central government in Kabul has not worked well because it ignores Afghanistan's decentralized history, said the U.S. Congress-funded institute's report, titled "Securing Afghanistan."

The international community should work with local leaders and tribal councils to give them legitimacy, provide services and connect them to the central government, the report said.

The report argues that the United States and NATO will be unlikely to defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups on their own because their mission stokes nationalistic reactions to what is perceived as foreign occupation.

"More U.S. forces in Afghanistan may be helpful, but only if they are used to build Afghan capacity," said the report. Washington, which is planning to nearly double the 37,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should use more of them to mentor senior officers of Afghanistan's police and army, it said.

Gao Yijun, a Chinese news observer, wrote in an article that the expected troop surge would be largely symbolic psychologically.

Only relying on troops and missiles, the U.S. can not ensure a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan, Gao said, adding that an all-round diplomatic and economic approach is required.

(Xinhua News Agency February 18, 2009)

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