WASHINGTON — In a preview of his speech next week announcing his plan to send more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama Tuesday vowed that he'll "finish the job" of stabilizing the country and destroying the al Qaida terror network.
" . . . it is in our strategic interest, in our national security interest to make sure that al Qaida and its extremist allies cannot operate effectively in those areas," Obama said. "We are going to dismantle and degrade their capabilities and ultimately dismantle and destroy their networks."
"After eight years — some of those years in which we did not have . . . either the resources or the strategy to get the job done — it is my intention to finish the job," Obama asserted during a White House news conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Obama Tuesday declined to provide any specifics about his plan, including the size of a U.S. military build-up, how he proposes to pay for it or how he intends to end U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which is now in its ninth year.
McClatchy reported Monday that Obama and his national security team had finalized a plan to send an additional 34,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan in phases, beginning in March and ending at the close of 2010.
The plan contains "decision points" at which the administration will reassess the situation in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. It could decide, depending on how much military or political progress had been made, to continue sending the additional forces, end the flow and adopt a more limited strategy, or begin planning a withdrawal, they said.
Obama said that in addition to the military campaign, his "comprehensive strategy" for Afghanistan also would include civilian and diplomatic components.
The strategy, the officials told McClatchy, is to couple the troop increase with greater anti-corruption efforts, political reforms, redoubled aid programs and expanded Afghan security forces, in an effort to weaken the Taliban-led insurgency and to persuade some insurgents to negotiate with the Karzai government.
"There are some in Congress who will be receptive to the idea that we're seeking a political solution and open to encouraging negotiations," one official said.
Some officials, however, fear that linking the U.S. buildup to military and political benchmarks will encourage insurgents to spurn negotiations and wait for the inevitable withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces.
Taliban-led insurgents "just drag their feet, play for time, and then we go," said one U.S. official, who — like others who commented for this report — requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
"This is a completely magnificent muddle," another official said.
"If they get the idea that we're not committed for as long as it takes, but only for as long as we've got, they have no reason to negotiate with anyone," another U.S. official said. "Right now, they think they're winning, and so one reason to send more troops now is to disabuse them of that notion."
Militant leaders are likely to interpret Obama's vow to finish the war during his presidency as a sign that they can wait out the United States, as the North Vietnamese did in the Vietnam conflict; as Syria, Iran and Hezbollah did in Lebanon in 1984; and as Islamic militants did in Somalia in 1994, another U.S. official said.
A senior U.S. official said that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been reaching out to the Taliban and other militant groups with the tacit acquiescence of U.S. officials, and called the diplomatic efforts "strictly Pakistani and Saudi initiatives."
"If we ever get to the point where Karzai has some invitations to mail, it would be good to have some addresses to send them to," another official said.
The Pakistanis and the Saudis have their own reasons for trying to talk to militant groups, several officials said.
Pakistan, and especially its military and Inter Services Intelligence agency, "wants to make sure it has a say" in whatever happens in Afghanistan, one said, while the Saudis worry that a militant victory over the U.S. in Afghanistan could trigger an Islamist revolution in their country.
Nevertheless, one defense official said: "Encouraging this outreach . . . may be a way to help the administration reassure Congress and the allies that it isn't betting all its chips on a military solution in Afghanistan."
Obama Tuesday predicted that he'd turn around public opinion on the war.
"I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals that they will be supportive," Obama said.
"It is going to be very important that the Afghan people are ultimately going to have to provide for their own security."
The president also defended himself against charges of dragging out his review of Afghanistan policy.
"I think that the review that we've gone through has been comprehensive and extremely useful, and has brought together my key military advisers, but also civilian advisers," Obama said.
On Monday, former Vice President Dick Cheney said that Obama has put troops in danger by dragging out the decision on whether to send more troops, first through more than 20 hours of meetings leading up to a ninth and final session on Monday night, and then by putting off announcing the decision until after Thanksgiving.
"The delay is not cost-free," Cheney told a conservative radio talk show host. "Every day that goes by raises doubts in the minds of our friends in the region what you're going to do, raises doubts in the minds of the troops."
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