WASHINGTON — One day after President Barack Obama authorized another 17,000 more soldiers and Marines for Afghanistan, the top military commander there predicted a "tough year" ahead, saying there likely would be more attacks on U.S. forces as they move into places where they haven't been before.
"Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be tough year," Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, said Wednesday at a Pentagon briefing.
Obama on Tuesday authorized sending the additional forces to Afghanistan beginning in late spring in what appeared an effort to shift the military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, a cornerstone of his presidential campaign.
To meet the president's request, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the deployment of 8,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and 4,000 soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash. Approximately another 5,000 support troops are expected to receive deployment orders "at a later date," a Defense Department statement said.
The Marines will be deployed to southern Afghanistan, where the U.S. is expanding its forces to fight the opium trade, which the Taliban use to fund their forces. Since 2001, British and Canadian forces have been in charge of that area, but violence there has increased recently with a rise in opium poppy production.
Coalition and civilian deaths are at their highest levels since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," McKiernan said.
The first Marines could arrive in Afghanistan by May. The Army brigade is expected to arrive by mid-summer. They'll have a dual mission — help double the size of the Afghan Army to 134,000 by the end of 2011 and provide security in Afghan communities, which increasingly are falling under Taliban control.
McKiernan also said there's "a possibility" that the additional forces will allow the military to use fewer air strikes in Afghanistan, which have been responsible for hundreds of civilian casualties and raised tensions between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
While McKiernan welcomed the additional troops, he said he'd still need more troops later this year.
With 146,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq and 38,000 already in Afghanistan, the U.S. military could send only two brigades now without increasing deployment times or shortening time off between deployments. The Obama administration has said that it plans to draw down troops in Iraq to send more to Afghanistan and is now debating the pace of the Iraqi pullout.
As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to withdraw troops within 16 months, but the military has submitted proposals to extend that withdrawal period for as long as 23 months.
Several months ago, McKiernan requested up to 30,000 additional troops — three more combat brigades and an aviation brigade and support troops. Obama's decision Tuesday meets two-thirds of McKiernan's request.
McKiernan said the Obama administration must decide later this year how many more troops would be needed for Afghanistan.
"I have what I need through the summer," he said.
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