WASHINGTON — In his first troop deployment to a war zone as commander in chief, President Barack Obama on Tuesday authorized sending as many as 17,500 additional troops to Afghanistan beginning this spring, a move that appears to mark the formal U.S. troop shift from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"There is no more solemn duty as president than the decision to deploy our armed forces into harm's way," Obama said in a statement. "I do it today mindful that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al Qaida supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe-haven along the Pakistani border."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the deployment of 8,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and 4,000 Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash., defense department officials said. Approximately another 5,000 support troops are expected to receive deployment orders "at a later date," a Defense Department statement said.
The first Marines could arrive in Afghanistan by May. The Army brigade is expected to arrive by mid-summer.
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There are 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 146,000 in Iraq.
The magnitude of the deployments will force the military to pull troops from Iraq or give soldiers longer deployments or shorter breaks. In his statement, Obama said that he understood the deployments will place an "extraordinary strain" on the troops, but it will be possible because "we are going to responsibly drawdown our forces in Iraq."
The decision comes amid a broad review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan that isn't due for completion until just before a NATO summit in early April. Obama said the troop decision "does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review."
He had to make a decision before then, said a senior administration official — who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record — because of the looming onset of the fighting season in Afghanistan with warmer weather, and preparations for national elections there later this year.
If the president had not acted now, "the options start to slip away," the official said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war and Obama's Republican opponent last year, said that sending more troops was long overdue but that "I believe the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he supported Obama's decision.
Roughly 8,000 troops will be from the II Marine Expeditionary Brigade, nearly all based out of Camp Lejeune.
Because of Afghanistan's rugged terrain, the Marines will come with their own air support. In addition, the 5th brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, a Stryker brigade of about 4,000 soldiers out of Fort Lewis also are being deployed.
The Marines and soldiers will be deployed to southern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are expanding to take on the poppy trade there, which the Taliban use to fund it forces and obtain its weapons. Since the Taliban fell in 2001, British and Canadian forces have been in charge of that area, but recently violence there has increased, as has poppy production.
Afghanistan produces two-thirds of the world's heroin from poppies. More than 90 percent of it comes out of Helmand province where the Marines are headed. Currently, the 3rd battalion 8th Marine brigade, also from Camp Lejeune, is in that area.
Several months ago, Army Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, requested up to 30,000 additional troops — three combat brigades more and an aviation brigade and support troops. What many in the Pentagon had expected to be a routine deployment became a part of the administration's effort to shift the approach taken under President George W. Bush.
Some critics felt it was inappropriate for the military to deploy troops without a clear strategy. Others said that Obama wasn't giving troops, many who'd been preparing for Iraq, the time to train for a different mission.
The Defense Department defended the timing, however.
"This is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas, and it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberative approach to that decision is entirely appropriate," Gates said last week.
On the ground, troops said the shifting strategy often forced them to make decisions within their own communities on how to balance training the Afghan army and police, which Gates called the U.S. "exit ticket out of there," and securing the population.
Tom Andrews, a former Maine congressman who directs the organization Win Without War, said in a statement Tuesday that "the first principle for someone who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging.
"The U.S. policy 'hole' in Afghanistan is not of the new administration's making. But it is important for the president to consider if adding new U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, without a new and comprehensive plan for U.S. policy there, might be digging an even bigger hole."
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