"Sources say the president will set a goal of expanding those Afghan forces from 170,000 to more than 210,000 by 2011. The hope is that they will play a rapidly increasing role in the war against al Qaeda, which the president identified on '60 Minutes' last Sunday as the central mission. ...
"The 4,000 new U.S. training troops will be in addition to the 17,000 combat and support troops the president already ordered to Afghanistan by the end of the summer. By then the total number of U.S. forces there is expected to be about 65,000. The president will also announce a new policy on neighboring Pakistan -- offering to triple non-military aid, but only if Pakistan does a better job of targeting militants who are launching attacks into Afghanistan from the Pakistan side of the border."
"The moves are part of a broad push to prevent the stalemated Afghan war from destabilizing both Afghanistan and Pakistan," reports the Wall Street Journal's Yoshi J. Dreazen.
"Since taking office in January, President Barack Obama has announced plans to wind down military operations in Iraq next year and shift more military resources to Afghanistan. ... Senior U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The resurgent Taliban exert day-to-day control over many rural parts of Afghanistan and have pushed U.S. and Afghan military casualties to record highs. Militants in Pakistan have battled the Pakistani army to a draw in several regions of the country and carry out regular suicide bombings. ...
"The strategy will effectively focus U.S. efforts in Afghanistan on the narrow goal of defeating al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, a shift away from the Bush administration's broader nation-building efforts there."
"American officials have repeatedly said that Afghanistan has to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban," write the New York Times' Peter Baker and Thom Shanker.
4274336"Mr. Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review. Setting benchmarks for Pakistan could be particularly difficult. For years, the United States has simply paid bills submitted by the Pakistani government for counterterrorism operations, even during truces when its military was not involved in counterterrorism.
"Pakistan has resisted linking its aid to specific performance criteria and officials acknowledged that developing those criteria could be problematic. The key elements of Mr. Obama's plan, with its more robust combat force, its emphasis on training, and its far-reaching goals, foreshadow an ambitious but risky and costly attempt to unify and stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Mr. Obama is unveiling his approach at a time when the conflict is worsening, the lives of the people are not visibly improving, and the intervention by American-led foreign powers is increasingly resented. The goals that Mr. Obama has settled on may be elusive and, according to some critics, even naïve. Among other things, officials said he planned to recast the Afghan war as a regional issue involving not only Pakistan but also India, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian states."
Meantime, the LA Times' Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller report, "Afghanistan's former Taliban leader is pursuing a determined effort to reclaim power, U.S. officials said Thursday, a bid they plan to thwart by isolating the most militant insurgents, intensifying training of police and military, and reaching out to people at all levels of Afghan society. The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was driven from power by the U.S. invasion in 2001 that also dislodged Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. But he has reassembled much of his base in Pakistan, where he leads a council of Islamic hard-liners accused of directing insurgent attacks across the border in Afghanistan."
So, how's the president's plan playing? Politico's David S. Cloud writes, "The Obama administration fears getting bogged down in a bloody and inconclusive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan—but it also fears walking away from the region. So its new strategy, which President Barack Obama plans to announce Friday at the White House, is a careful middle course that seeks to avoid both of these unacceptable outcomes.
"It keeps the U.S. committed but not too committed. It doesn't promise fast results or sweeping achievements, like defeating the Taliban insurgency or quickly bringing security to the Afghan people. It seeks to draw allies into the effort but doesn't greatly expand the U.S. footprint, though Obama will announce he is sending 4,000 more troops, several hundred civilian reconstruction experts, and $1.5 billion in additional economic aid to Pakistan. And it will contain benchmarks that give Obama a chance to review the strategy at regular intervals to decide whether it is working. The question that arises is whether in trying to keep the U.S. commitment limited, the White House is making it that much harder for the new strategy to work."
BUDGET: "President Barack Obama's budget is headed for floor debate in the House and Senate next week after a pair of congressional committees wrapped up work on competing drafts of the plan," reports Bloomberg News' Brian Faler.
"The Senate Budget Committee voted 13 to 10 yesterday to approve a $3.53 trillion tax-and-spending package for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The House Budget Committee backed a $3.55 trillion plan on March 25. The votes in both panels split along party lines, previewing what are likely to be partisan skirmishes over majority Democrats' priorities."
"Republicans object that the spending plan, while pared back, would still drive the nation deeply into debt," writes the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery.
"Even Senate Democrats who have complained about the massive deficits generated by Obama's policies are not likely to block the proposal. A bigger fight is looming, however, over whether to use a powerful procedural maneuver to push Obama's signature health, education and clean energy initiatives through the Senate without any Republican votes. The House advocates the maneuver, known as reconciliation, in its budget plan, but influential Senate Democrats have joined Republicans in opposing the move and said they will fight to block it when the chambers meet to resolve their differences in a conference committee next month."
House Republicans are offering an alternative budget "but they were mocked by Democrats for putting out a document with almost no details or precise figures," reports the Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr.
"Looking to rebut criticism from President Obama that the GOP is attacking him but not offering proposals of its own, Republican lawmakers released an 18-page outline of an alternative budget that proposes to cut overall government spending except for defense, ban additional spending for bailouts of financial companies, and cut the maximum income tax rate to 25 percent from the current rate of 36 percent."
The Washington Times' Kara Rowland reports that the Republicans' alternative is "light on specifics": "Vowing not to be merely that "party of no," House Republicans have tried to back up their criticism of Democrats with concrete alternatives - beginning with their own version of the stimulus passed earlier this session - even if they have little chance of passage in a Democrat-dominated Congress.
"But on the budget, tax reform appeared to be the only area in which Republicans were ready to offer specific ideas. Their plan would set income tax rates of 10 percent for those making less than $100,000 a year and make the set highest rate at 25 percent, down from the current 36 percent. ... On issues such as health care, energy, the deficit and national debt, the Republican document was little more than a statement of broad principles."
"Targeted Democrats are balking at some of the tactics -- a sign that campaign methods so effective in getting Obama elected may not easily transfer to the policy realm. ... Obama's fellow Democrats caution that the ads could backfire in swing districts populated with many conservative voters. ... Some Democratic lawmakers contend that the ads won't work.
"Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said that the TV advertising would not influence his vote. And he questioned whether the ads were consistent with the president's promise of collaboration. Obama has told lawmakers that they should not be 'potted plants' -- passing his budget intact without raising questions -- Bayh said."
NY-20: The Democratic National Committee released an ad Thursday featuring President Obama's endorsement of Scott Murphy, the Democrat vying to fill the House seat vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. In advance of next Tuesday's election, Mr. Obama's endorsement is his first foray into a political campaign since becoming president.
"On a national level, the outcome of this race will be spun to signify national trends, as a bellwether of Republican renewal or continued Democratic dominance," reports the Albany Times-Union's Irene Jay Liu.
"Cognizant of the potential to portray a [Republican Jim] Tedisco win as a game-changer for the GOP, national party officials jumped into the race with both feet. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele traveled to Albany to appear with Tedisco in early February; House Republican Whip Eric Cantor hosted a fundraiser in New York City; and a GOP rising star, Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock, appeared with Tedisco in Halfmoon. ...
"With more to lose than gain in the upstate race, national Democrats initially took an arms-length approach to it. But as the matchup has turned competitive, Murphy has received additional support in terms of dollars spent on the race and high-profile endorsements. Earlier this week, Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy Kaine sent a fundraising appeal to more than 500 major donors on Murphy's behalf. On Wednesday, Obama endorsed Murphy, sending an appeal for donations and support to 5,000 supporters from his own campaign list; on Thursday, a TV ad touting the President's endorsement was sent out by the DNC. The same day, a radio ad was released featuring Vice President Joe Biden, a graduate of Syracuse University Law School."
ALSO TODAY: At noon ET, President Obama meets with bank CEOs to discuss the financial bailout, the administration's proposed new regulations for the financial industry and the economy. Reuters' Jeff Mason, "Obama to meet bank CEOs to discuss economic crisis"
Mr. Obama will also make remarks at the installation ceremony for Attorney General Eric Holder.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Chile to attend the Progressive Governance Conference. Miami Herald's Frances Robles, "Biden's visit to Chile shows renewed interest in Central and South America by the Obama administration"
***CBSNews.com's Washington Unplugged today at 2 p.m. ET: The European Union Ambassador to the United States John Burton will be a guest. Slate Magazine's Chief Political Correspondent John Dickerson will talk to Ambassador Bruton about the kind of reception President Obama will receive in Europe next week and the former EU President's comments that the Obama stimulus plan is a 'way to hell.'
White House Correspondents Chip Reid and Peter Maer will join the roundtable to discuss Afghanistan and the President's looming G-20 and NATO Summits. Finally, we will sit down with Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post cartoonist Thomas Toles to discuss life on the funny pages.
COMING UP: Sunday on CBS News' Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer has an exclusive interview with President Obama.
Mr. Obama leaves for Europe next Tuesday. "Barack Obama, heading overseas for the first time as president next week, aims to use a combination of summit protocol and campaign flash to corral support for his programs," report the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman and Stephen Fiedler.
"Facing political headwinds but with a European public still on his side, Mr. Obama will attend three high-profile international events -- the meeting of Group of 20 nations that kicks off Wednesday evening in London, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting at the end of the week, and a European Union-U.S. summit in Prague on April 5.
"But Mr. Obama also intends to extend his efforts beyond official meetings. He will hold a town hall-style meeting at a sports arena in Strasbourg, France, European diplomatic officials said. And the White House is looking for a site in Prague for the first public foreign-policy speech of Mr. Obama's presidency, according to Petr Kolar, the Czech Republic's ambassador to the U.S. Turkish press reports say Mr. Obama's visit to Istanbul after the Prague summit will include a stop at the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine-era church converted to a mosque under the Ottomans, and a stop at the national Sultan Ahmed Mosque."
Reuters' Caren Bohan, "Obama's economic remedies may face pushback at G20"
Also next week, the Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Kathleen Sebelius.
FINANCIAL INDUSTRY REGULATION
Wall Street Journal, "In the Geithner Plan, the Devil Is Lurking in the Details"
Associated Press' Martin Crutsinger, "Financial overhaul plan draws GOP opposition"
NY Times' Edmund L. Andrews, "Battles Over Reform Plan Lie Ahead"
Detroit News' Gordon Trowbridge and David Shepardson, "Obama: U.S. must help American automakers"
Detroit Free Press' Justin Hyde, "Obama: Auto aid depends on 'painful' changes"
Associated Press' Ken Thomas and Tom Krisher, "Obama says automakers need 'drastic changes'"
Associated Press' Alan Fram, "Obama limits stimulus lobbying"
NY Times' Nicholas Kulish, "Aided by Safety Nets, Europe Resists Stimulus Push"
Anchorage Daily News' Sean Cockerham, "[Alaska] Lawmakers, governor miss connections"
Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Gary Fineout, "[Florida] Legislature may reject $1.1 billion in stimulus funds"
NY Times' Mark Landler, "Clinton Reassures Mexico About Its Image"
WHITE HOUSE VIRTUAL TOWN MEETING
Washington Post's Michael A. Fletcher and Jose Antonio Vargas, "The White House, Open for Questions"
CBS News' Brian Montopoli, "Obama: Legalizing Pot Won't Grow Economy"
Wall Street Journal's S. Mitra Kalita, "U.S. Deters Hiring of Foreigners as Joblessness Grows"
Washington Post's Lois Romano interviewed White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, "A Spokesman, on Suits and Strategy"
Time Magazine's James Poniewozik, "The Obamathon: Is the President Doing Too Much TV?"
MINNESOTA SENATE RECOUNT
Minneapolis Star Tribune's Paul McEnroe and Tony Kennedy, "Exec says Coleman donor ordered $100k payments"
Washington Post's Paul Kane and Chris Cilliza, "Political Parties See Dramatic Decline in Fundraising"
CQ Politics' Emily Cadei, "Democrats Keep Track of Who's Helping the Party"
2009 VA Governor: Richmond Times-Dispatch's Jeff E. Schapiro, "McAuliffe proposes a ban on lobbyists' gifts"
2010 CA Senate: CBSNews.com's Brent Lang, "Schwarzenegger Rules Out Run For Senate"
2010 CT Senate: The Hill's Jeremy P. Jacobs, "Dodd gains ground over Simmons in new poll"
2010 NY Senate: NY Times' Raymond Hernandez and David Kocieniewski, "As New Lawyer, Senator Defended Big Tobacco"
2010 UT Senate: CQ Politics' Michael Teitlebaum, "Utah's Election Process May Get a Workout in 2010 Senate Race"
LA Times' Peter Wallsten, "A risky new push for immigration legislation"
Associated Press' Tom Coyne, "Criticism over Obama invite mounts at Notre Dame"
LA Times' Ben Meyerson, "In Washington, entertainment makes its case for funding"