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Obama To Announce Afghan Strategy

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The president meets with his national security team tonight. They will once again be discussing Afghanistan. It is the ninth time the group has met. But this time the White House is close to a decision on whether or not to send more American troops there.

NPR's Tom Bowman has been following the debate. He joins us now. And Tom, you've learned some more about when the president plans to announce his decision. What have you learned?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Melissa, we understand that the president will go out next week on Tuesday night in a televised address or make a statement of some kind about his decision on Afghanistan. And then that'll be followed shortly thereafter, perhaps as early as the next day by testimony in the Hill, perhaps by Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And then at some point we expect General Stanley McChrystal to come back to Washington to also talk about the Afghan strategy and the way ahead. So that's what we understand now. This is a working plan now. It hasn't been finalized, but that's what they hope will happen next week.

BLOCK: And what are the troop options that the president is choosing from?

BOWMAN: Well, General McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan was looking at, really, three options. A low option of 12,000 troops - those would mostly be what they call enablers, trainers and support people. Not combat troops. And then the second option would be roughly 40,000, a mix of trainers and combat troops. Third option, 80,000 plus American troops. So the debate is really centered on the 40,000. That's what we understand McChrystal really is looking for.

BLOCK: Tom, as you've been reporting, there are conflicting views about whether the strategy should be a counterinsurgency strategy or a counterterrorist strategy in Afghanistan. Where do things stand now?

BOWMAN: Well, right now I think they're moving more towards the counterinsurgency approach and that's very troop-intensive. In a counterinsurgency you need a lot of troops to spread out, protect the population, train local forces and eventually start to withdraw. That's what they're centering on now.

Early on they were talking more about a counterterrorism strategy. And Vice President Joe Biden was really behind this. And his view was to send in fewer troops, more, you know, commando-type, Green Berets soldiers and also use drones to strike at insurgent targets, particularly in Pakistan, because al-Qaida now has moved into Pakistan.

So the counterterrorism argument is why are we devoting so many resources to Afghanistan when the real enemy, al-Qaida, is in Pakistan? But the sense over the past couple of months is you really have to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a haven once again for al-Qaida. So, really, the counterinsurgency argument is really coming to the fore now, where they really believe you have to send a large number of troops in, again, to protect the population, train the Afghan forces and then eventually start backing away.

BLOCK: And, Tom, if the president does decide to send more troops, how long would it take for them to get to Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, it does take quite some time to move equipment over there. They would move it by ship. That would take a month or two. You can quickly fly the troops over. But it's their equipment that takes a long time. So if a decision is made, let's say, in the next week or two, you probably wouldn't see the first troops move over there until probably some time around March or so.

BLOCK: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.