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By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military chiefs plan to present recommendations on troop strength and strategy in Afghanistan to President Barack Obama on Friday as White House deliberations reach an end stage, Pentagon officials said.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright will be joined at the White House meeting by leaders of the Army, Marine Corps., Navy and Air Force, a sign Obama was delving into details of troop readiness and availability before deciding on numbers.
"They will present those views to the president, collectively and individually," an official said. "The chiefs' views in regard to resources will be an important factor."
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell described the strategy review as "at the end stages" and said the White House had made clear it wanted to wait until after Afghanistan's November 7 presidential run-off election before making final announcements.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting Pakistan, said she envisioned Obama's decision coming "sometime after the Afghan election is finally resolved," suggesting he would await the outcome of the vote count, a process that could stretch into mid-November.
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has recommended deploying an additional 40,000 troops next year, a figure that includes trainers to accelerate the expansion of the Afghan army.
The White House says Obama has yet to decide whether to send that many or a smaller number of troops.
After visiting Dover Air Force Base overnight to witness the arrival of the flag-draped caskets of 18 soldiers and federal agents killed in Afghanistan this week, Obama told reporters: "Obviously the burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts."
U.S. forces have been stretched thin by long deployments in Iraq, and a troop surge in Afghanistan could hinge, in part, on whether Obama's timetable for drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq next year stays on schedule.
"One of the things they (the chiefs) will answer for the president is the availability of resources should the president decide to send more forces," the Pentagon official said.
The official declined to discuss what the chiefs would recommend to the president.
Having ruled out troop reductions, Obama's advisers have started to consider how many more combat and training brigades could be sent and how soon, an administration official said.
A HYBRID STRATEGY
Top officials appeared to be laying the ground for a hybrid war strategy, with a counterinsurgency focussed on protecting major Afghan population centres combined with a stepped up counterterrorism campaign in the countryside and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
This strategy, the official said, would entail a troop increase, though not necessarily as large as the 40,000-troop surge recommended by McChrystal. There are about 67,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces now in Afghanistan.
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said the Obama administration's strategy, whatever it is, won't succeed unless the Afghan government does a better job delivering services to the people and combating corruption.
A focus on protecting population centres has been part of the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal has been advocating, and to a degree implementing, for months. He has shuttered several outlying outposts as part of the shift.
A stepped up counterterrorism campaign, an idea advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, could rely increasingly on unmanned aerial drones and special operations forces that would hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda loyalists outside population centres, the administration official said.
Administration and congressional officials have said that one to two additional Marine brigades were under consideration for southern Afghanistan.
A Marine brigade generally fields between 3,500 to 5,000 troops. Another brigade may be sent to eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.
But Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, cautioned that any new troop commitment risked the United States being seen as an occupying power.
"Expansion of our own combat presence could feed a Taliban propaganda machine that seeks to portray the forces arrayed against them not as a home-grown domestic effort to prevent the return of a detested extremist regime, but as the effort of a foreign occupier," he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Sue Pleming in Washington, and Andrew Quinn in Pakistan; Editing by Philip Barbara)