WASHINGTON – The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan has warned against sending thousands more troops to the country as President Barack Obama weighs strategy options in the eight-year conflict, reports said Thursday.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired army general who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2005-2007, detailed his concerns in classified cables last week.
Eikenberry also expressed worries about the behavior of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was re-elected to a five year term in August polls tainted by widespread fraud, the Post said.
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The ambassador sent his strongly worded correspondence as Obama weighs his options on what to do about a growing Taliban insurgency that has put at risk an eight-year US-led effort to pacify the country.
At a critical meeting of his war cabinet on Wednesday, the Times said, Obama asked Eikenberry about his concerns and also raised questions about the four options now before him.
These include a low-end option involving the deployment of about 10,000 to 15,000 US troops, mostly trainers to accelerate the expansion of the Afghan security forces.
The other options call for even larger buildups of the 68,000-strong US force.
The administration's deep ambivalence about an expanding military commitment with a weak and allegedly corrupt government as its partner in Kabul was reflected in a White House statement read out at the end of the session.
"The president believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended," a White House official told journalists.
"After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time to ensure a successful transition to our Afghan partner."
Obama departs Thursday on his first presidential tour of Asia, putting off for at least another nine days what may be the most fateful decision of his presidency.Related article: Obama 'will do right' by troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen joined the president in the White House situation room for Wednesday's session, the eighth since August.
Eikenberry participated by video link from Afghanistan, as did General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander.
The ambassador's position, as reported in the newspaper accounts, puts him at sharp odds with McChrystal, who has called for more than 40,000 additional US troops over the next year and warned that without them the US mission is likely to fail.
Eikenberry speaks from experience. Not only did he command US forces in Afghanistan as security began to deteriorate three years ago, but also led early efforts to equip and train an Afghan force in 2002-2003.
But Gates, Clinton and Mullen are said to favor sending in 30,000, less than what McChrystal asked for but still a substantial increase.
A third proposal envisages ramping up the numbers by between 20,000 and 25,000, the Times said.
Obama is said to have voiced concerns about how the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan would support the US effort.
One official told the Times: "He's simply not convinced yet that you can do a lasting counterinsurgency strategy if there is no one to hand it off to."
Eikenberry is concerned a big troop buildup would only boost Afghanistan's reliance on US forces, undercutting Washington's efforts to get Kabul to assume greater responsibility for its own security, the reports said.
And he has expressed concern about the lack of funds set aside for development and reconstruction, the Post said. His request for 2.5 billion dollars in aid funding in 2010 has languished amid the debate over the military buildup.
Obama's decision has been complicated by the fraud-tainted elections in Afghanistan which saw Karzai re-elected to a second term.
Public opposition to the war is also growing, with some 800 US soldiers having lost their lives in Afghanistan and the number of casualties rising. October was the deadliest month for US forces there since 2001.
Most Americans oppose sending in more troops, a poll said Wednesday, with 56 percent of respondents to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation saying they were against it, and 58 percent opposing the conflict.
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