Will talk of Afghan 'off-ramps' prompt Taliban to hang tough?

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will unveil his long-awaited Afghanistan strategy in a prime-time address from West Point, N.Y., on Dec. 1, the White House said Wednesday, but the administration's advance remarks have sparked concern that talk of an eventual U.S. withdrawal will encourage Islamist insurgents to persevere.

During the speech, "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 . . . (he) does not see this as an open-ended engagement," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "Our time there will be limited, and I think that's important for people to understand."

In a sign that the insurgents may think they can outlast the U.S. and its allies, hours after Obama on Tuesday declared that he intended to end the war during his presidency, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ruled out a political settlement and said his Islamist movement would "gain strength with the passage of time."

In a statement posted on a Taliban-run Web site, he also urged Afghans to join the fight against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

"The foreigners have occupied the land of the Afghans by . . . might and savagery. If they want (a) solution of the issue, they should put an end to the occupation of Afghanistan," said Omar, who's thought to be based in neighboring Pakistan. "The invading Americans want mujahedeen to surrender under the pretext of negotiation. This is something impossible."

Besides a military buildup, officials have said, Obama's plan contains "off-ramps," points starting in June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of additional troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress.

A former senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said that the success of Obama's plan will depend on whether the insurgents, ordinary Afghans and the country's neighbors see it as a declaration of resolve or a plan to end the U.S. military engagement in the country, now in its ninth year.

"If this is simply the Americans sketching out a road map for their departure, then it's game over," said the former senior U.S. commander, who requested that he not be further identified so he could speak more freely. "We are sending an awful lot of mixed signals at best."

Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who's advised Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that Obama appears to be trying to give the military enough additional troops without jeopardizing congressional funding from his own party.

Biddle says that's not necessarily a sign of weakness or an attempt to please everybody.

"Obviously, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is one of the key constituencies. My guess is this is going to be a lot more than they would prefer," Biddle said.

"Part of the job description of grand strategist is, you have to sustain public support for the war-making effort, Biddle continued. ". . . If Barack Obama chooses a troop count and strategy that induces the progressive wing to bolt and the war to be defunded, in two years we will lose this war, and that will have been bad military strategy."

Some Democrats already have begun calling for a timetable. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that Obama is trying to be too pragmatic in his approach to Afghanistan. Grijalva's caucus has been pushing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is a buildup and a significant one," Grijalva said. "You can't split the baby on this one. You either begin to get out or you build up."

Gibbs indicated that Obama's plan would include benchmarks to measure political progress and possibly time scenarios for a U.S. withdrawal, but he declined to discuss specifics ahead of the speech.

U.S. military officials in Kabul said they don't think the plan will have a fixed exit point, but they said administration's public comments about "off-ramps" could make it harder to encourage some Taliban to join the troubled Afghan government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

Military commanders also said they already feel pressure to show some progress within the next 18 months or face an exasperated public and Congress.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and McChrystal are expected to testify on Capitol Hill next week, including a Thursday appearance before the House Armed Services Committee.

However, U.S. military officials in Kabul told McClatchy Wednesday that they don't know the details of Obama's plan. Two U.S. military officials, in Washington and in Kabul, said that as of Wednesday night McChrystal hadn't been informed of the president's decision.

"At this point, it is not clear what Gen. McChrystal is supposed to testify about," said the official in Washington, who like others requested anonymity to speak freely.

Military officials expect the president to announce the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan — to which the U.S. has long been committed — and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police. There are now 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 coalition troops representing 43 nations in Afghanistan.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose government has been pushing NATO members for an additional 5,000 troops, said Wednesday he was optimistic that the additional forces would be made available. Italian officials Wednesday indicated that they might be prepared to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is where President George W. Bush in 2002 laid out his justification for preemptive war to protect against terrorist attacks following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush returned to West Point last December to defend the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and said the U.S. "must stay on the offensive."

Obama hasn't visited Afghanistan since he took office, and some officials worry that sending more troops without having seen those who're already serving there could be a political problem. Making the announcement at West Point acknowledges the troops who'll be called upon to serve, they said.

(William Douglas contributed to this article.)

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