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By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is wrapping up deliberations on war strategy in Afghanistan and is considering final Pentagon options that include sending about 30,000 more troops, officials said on Saturday.
A deployment of that size would be less than the 40,000-troop increase recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but more than many of Obama's Democratic allies may support.
Record combat deaths have eroded U.S. public support for the war, and a decision to expand troop levels could become a political liability for the president ahead of congressional elections next year.
Currently, there are about 67,000 U.S. troops and 40,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.
Under one of the final Pentagon options presented to the White House, three additional combat brigades would be deployed and a division headquarters set up near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, as part of a 30,000-troop increase.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Obama has settled on a troop increase but has yet to make up his mind about its size.
Brigades generally include 3,500 to 4,000 troops, though they can swell to over 5,000 troops if other units are attached. Marine brigades can be larger.
Obama, who will visit Asia from Nov 12-19, is expected to announce his decision within a few weeks, possibly after Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration. Karzai was re-elected in a controversial poll tainted by fraud.
The timing may hinge on the extent to which Karzai embraces U.S. and European calls for a pact under which his government would commit to taking concrete steps to fight corruption and improve governance, including the delivery of public services.
Washington believes a successful counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban hinges in large part on winning Afghan public support for the government in Kabul.
But Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that the re-elected president's legitimacy among the Afghan people was "at best, in question right now and, at worst, doesn't exist."
OPTIONS NARROW
Senior Obama administration officials have stepped up consultations with key allies, laying the ground for an announcement on strategy and troop levels.
In his confidential troop request, McChrystal said 40,000 additional troops were needed to help secure Afghan population centers and to give NATO some additional resources to take on Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in outlying areas.
Another option, deemed more risky by McChrystal, calls for between 10,000 and 15,000 more troops, which would enable the commander to focus on securing population centers but provide few additional resources to broaden the anti-Taliban campaign.
A third option -- to send an additional 80,000 troops to mount a more robust counterinsurgency against the Taliban across the country -- was widely seen as a non-starter from the onset of the White House review.
Support for continuing a counterinsurgency strategy with a greater focus on protecting major Afghan population centers has been growing within the Obama administration.
Counterinsurgency advocates include Defence Secretary Robert Gates and military leaders, including McChrystal.
Officials said this strategy could be combined with a stepped up counterterrorism campaign, advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, using unmanned aerial drones and special operations forces to combat Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the Afghan countryside and near the border with Pakistan.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland; Editing by Paul Simao)

Reuters