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By Sue Pleming and Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House squeezed Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday to show more resolve in fighting corruption and said President Barack Obama's war plan deliberations included an exit strategy for U.S. troops.
Obama, en route to Asia for a weeklong trip, stopped at an air base in Alaska where he told U.S. troops he would give them the strategy and clear mission they deserved in the increasingly unpopular eight-year-old war.
The president is weighing several options for boosting U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, a decision all but certain to escalate America's involvement to confront a resurgent Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.
"I will not risk your lives unless it is necessary to America's vital interests. And if it is necessary, the United States of America will have your back," Obama told the troops.
The president left for Asia amid revelations his own ambassador to Kabul, ex-military commander Karl Eikenberry, had expressed deep concerns about sending in more troops until Karzai's government improved its performance.
Senior officials said Obama had discussed Eikenberry's concerns, sent via diplomatic memos, during a war cabinet meeting at the White House where several options were laid out for the president as he revises strategy in Afghanistan.
At the meeting on Wednesday, Obama called for more information on timelines for troop levels and when Afghan security forces would be competent to take over, according to several U.S. officials.
"It's important to examine not just how we're going to get folks in but how we're going to get folks out," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters travelling to Asia.
Obama's revised strategy is not expected to give a timetable for withdrawal but Washington has made clear it expects Karzai to provide concrete steps on how he will fight corruption and mismanagement.
Gibbs said a successful U.S. strategy was "most dependent on the Afghan government being a proven partner" and that the Obama administration was working on agreements with Karzai's team over what it needed to do.
"That's part of his (Obama's) desire to get a sense of where we are rather than committing to an open-ended conflict," Gibbs said.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates also made this point during a visit to Wisconsin, telling reporters the issue was how best to show resolve while signalling to the Afghans and the American people that it was not an "open-ended commitment."
ANTI-CORRUPTION MESSAGE
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she shared concerns raised by a number of leaders about corruption, a lack of transparency and poor governance in Afghanistan.
"Corruption is corrosive in a society," she told reporters on a trip to the Philippines. "The corruption issue really goes to the heart of whether the people of Afghanistan feel that the government is on their side, is working for them."
In Kabul, German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had the same message for Karzai.
"Just paying lip service isn't good enough. The Afghan government has to meet these targets," he said.
Germany has about 4,200 soldiers in Afghanistan, the third-largest contingent in the NATO mission that is made up of 67,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 from allied nations.
Gibbs said Obama's decision would not be announced until after he returns from the November 12-20 Asia trip. He gave no time but said there probably would be another war cabinet meeting.
Republicans have criticized Obama for taking so long to announce his decision and a new poll by Zogby Interaction found that nearly half of those surveyed viewed the lengthy deliberations as a sign of weakness by the president.
Obama's strategy review has involved, among other elements, how to combine some of the best features of various options presented to him by his advisors, Gates said.
Proposals to send at least 30,000 more U.S. troops have been gaining support from key advisors, including Gates and military chiefs, as part of an expanded counter-insurgency plan.
Obama did not reject the proposed troop options, which range from 10,000 to about 40,000 additional troops, one official said.
"He wants to see it as a complete package" that includes goals for handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, the official added.
COST ESTIMATES
White House budget director Peter Orszag estimated it costs roughly $10 billion (6 billion pound) extra per year for every 10,000 troops deployed, so a surge of 40,000 troops would cost about $40 billion more.
U.S. officials familiar with Obama's deliberations said his team was trying to increase pressure on Karzai ahead of his inauguration for a second term next week.
Precisely what leverage the United States has with Karzai is unclear but there is impatience over his attitude so far.
U.S. officials have been disappointed by many of Karzai's public comments, particularly in a PBS interview last week in which he appeared to blame Western donors for some corruption.
"It is less about securing leverage but how that informs your own strategy. You work out what sort of partner you have and determine your own force level," said one Western diplomat.
A core element of Western strategy will be to bolster military training for local forces in Afghanistan so it does not become a safe haven for militants, the head of NATO said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview with BBC Television that he shared Eikenberry's concerns about sending more troops to Afghanistan.
But he added: "We are in Afghanistan for the sake of our own security and therefore we should stay committed and stay for as long as it takes to finish the job."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Anchorage, Alaska; Phil Stewart and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jim Wolf in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

Reuters