U.S. soldiers fire a mortar round during practice at their outpost in Baraki… (Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington — As President Obama prepares to unveil his long-deliberated war strategy, the Taliban's supreme commander declared Wednesday that U.S.-led forces would find only defeat, dishonor and "a bed of thorns" in Afghanistan.
The statement came as the White House announced that Obama will deliver a televised speech about the war Tuesday from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is expected to announce higher troop levels for Afghanistan and detail a plan for ultimately withdrawing U.S. forces.
"We're in the ninth year of our efforts in Afghanistan," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in announcing the speech, which will air at 5 p.m. "The president will want to walk through his decision-making process and give people a sense of the importance of our efforts, but reiterate for them that the president does not see this as an open-ended engagement.
"Our time there will be limited," Gibbs said, "and I think that's important for people to understand."
The Taliban warning, contained in a statement by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the movement's reclusive leader, was issued on the eve of one of the year's most important Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice. It marks the end of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is made by millions of observant Muslims.
In his missive, which was punctuated by the flowery phrases and high-flown rhetoric typically employed in such messages, Omar urged Afghans to disavow the "puppet" government of President Hamid Karzai, who was sworn in last week to a second term after an election clouded by massive vote-rigging.
"Break off all relations with the stooge administration in Kabul!" Omar urged, saying that the Karzai government was a partner to "the evil process of colonization and occupation."
The Taliban leader also denounced Karzai's calls for Taliban fighters and commanders to lay down their arms and join in the political process, an appeal that has the broad backing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Western governments.
Omar, a one-eyed village cleric who rose to the leadership of the Taliban movement more than a dozen years ago, has a $25-million bounty on his head.
He disappeared soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and is thought to have his headquarters in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
The Taliban commander periodically issues statements aimed at his followers as well as the Afghan public, but this was the most detailed one in some time.
Despite the belligerent tone, Omar appeared to betray some anxiety about the prospect of reconciliatory talks between the Afghan government and elements of the insurgency.
"The invading Americans want [holy warriors] to surrender, under the pretext of negotiations," he said. "This is something impossible."
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it was sent to journalists via an e-mail address used previously to disseminate Omar's statements, and was posted on a website used by the Taliban.
Obama's speech Tuesday will follow weeks of debate within the administration over whether to deploy tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, reportedly requested as many as 40,000 more troops, and indications have been growing that about three-quarters of that number will be sent to the country in coming months.
The U.S. currently has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have been seeking additional troops from NATO allies as well. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the alliance's leader on Wednesday that he was confident that more NATO and British troops would be deployed.
Britain, which has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, had promised 500 more if other NATO allies also contributed additional military personnel. He had been seeking 5,000 more troops from 10 alliance members.
"I am now optimistic that a majority of these countries will indeed make available increased numbers of troops, and more police trainers and civilian support," Brown told alliance Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a letter.
In Omar's statement Wednesday, the Taliban leader scoffed at any new Western deployments.
"The invaders' . . . moribund efforts," he said, "are tantamount to erecting a mound of sand in front of the turbulent river of the jihadist movement."
Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.