WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials are settling on a new-look Afghan strategy to secure 10 major population centers, a media report said Wednesday, as President Barack Obama neared a decision on whether to hurl thousands more troops into the fray.
Obama's advisers, after weeks of in-depth meetings, are coalescing around a strategy aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers in Afghanistan, The New York Times said.
The strategy would fall short of a full counter-insurgency strategy against the Taliban and other elements but still seek to foster stability, the newspaper said, quoting unnamed senior officials.
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Stressing that the president has yet to make a decision, the Times said the debate was not about whether to send more troops but how many more would be needed to safeguard most vital parts of the country.
The report mentioned four brigades, of about 4,500 troops each, that might form part of the new strategy. Cities meriting protection would include Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat and Jalalabad, the Times said.
There was no immediate White House comment on the report.
Obama will meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday to hear input on future Afghan and Pakistan policy from all branches of the armed services, as he edges toward a fateful decision on whether to deploy thousands more troops.
Multiple signs that Obama may be nearing a decisive moment followed the deaths of eight more U.S. soldiers on the battlefield, making October the bloodiest month for American forces since the war began in 2001.
Six United Nations staff were killed on Wednesday in a brazen attack on a guesthouse there, a U.N. spokesman said, heightening concern that even the Afghan capital cannot be secured from emboldened rebel violence.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that Obama's meeting with the joint chiefs was a sign the president was "getting, certainly, toward the end" of the policy review.
Gibbs repeated that Obama would make a final decision on Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for at least 40,000 more counter-insurgency troops "in the coming weeks."
Obama is under intense pressure, as rising violence in Afghanistan brings more U.S. fatalities and a dip in popular support for a conflict that has now dragged on for eight years.
Speculation is rife in Washington over whether Obama will reveal his hand before heading off on an eight-day trip to Asia on Nov. 11.
Last week, Obama said he may make up his mind before the Afghan re-run election on Nov. 7, but may not announce his decision.
The U.S. capital was buzzing after the resignation of a diplomat who publicly criticized the Afghan war.
Matthew Hoh, 36, was the senior State Department official in Afghanistan's Zabul province, a hotbed of Taliban militancy, until last month when he became the first U.S. official known to have resigned in protest at the conflict.
In a letter to his superiors, Hoh described the United States as "a supporting actor" in Afghanistan's decades-old civil war, adding that he had "lost understanding of and confidence in" the US mission.
Gibbs said Obama had read The Washington Post's report on Hoh's resignation but had not seen the letter himself.
Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, who last week helped convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to embrace the run-off vote after a fraud-tainted first round, further stirred the pot on Obama's decision.
A week after saying it would be "common sense" for Obama to put his decision on hold until after the Afghan election, Kerry said he would be "surprised" if Obama did not announce his decision before leaving for Asia.
Obama, after being accused of "dithering" by former vice president Dick Cheney, told a military audience in Florida that he would never "rush" the decision to ask Americans to risk their lives in a war half a world away.
The latest attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, claimed by the Taliban, occurred a day after 14 US. soldiers and narcotics agents died in helicopter crashes, bringing to 53 the number of U.S. dead this month.
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