Obama faces steep challenges in new Afghan policy

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — With eight years of blood and treasure already spent and perhaps his presidency hanging in the balance, President Barack Obama will tell the world Tuesday how he'll escalate the war in Afghanistan — and how he hopes his risky decision will lead finally to a path home for U.S. forces.

The stakes of his decision — ordered into effect at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Oval Office — are enormous, and the challenges of making it work are daunting. He'll speak at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Perhaps his toughest task will be balancing his plan to send 30,000 to 35,000 more American troops with talk of new benchmarks for success and the strong signal that U.S. troops will turn over Afghanistan's security to Afghan forces and get out.

His expected talk on the end of the war is meant to spark Afghans to take charge of their own country — and to soothe anti-war Democrats here. Yet it also could suggest to the enemies that all they have to do is wait out an impatient United States, and to Pakistan, Iran, India and others that the U.S. lacks the stomach for a protracted battle.

Beyond that, he has to explain how his new plan can root out the Taliban, deny al Qaida and its allies a sanctuary, straighten out a corrupt Afghan government so people have an alternative to the Taliban and get neighboring Pakistan to fight terrorists that have fled there.

He also has to do it all while making sure that the tinderbox region isn't further inflamed by a belligerent Iran defiantly ramping up nuclear plans, a resurgence of ethnic and religious violence in Iraq or a growing Islamist insurgency in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

"It's probably the most important decision in his career," said Karin Von Hippel, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington. "There are so many moving parts that need to be aligned. ...I think we can do it, but it's a huge challenge."

Obama on Sunday summoned the members of his top military and security team to the White House to give them the final go-ahead on his plan. As McClatchy first reported on Nov. 7, it would bolster the current 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with another 30,000 to 35,000, to be deployed starting early next year.

The first, officials told McClatchy, will be a brigade of Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., followed by Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.

After meeting with top officials from the Pentagon and White House staff, Obama spoke with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal later Sunday evening via teleconference from the White House Situation Room. It was McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, who requested additional troops to institute a new counterinsurgency strategy that would fight the Taliban while shoring up the Afghan government and Afghan forces.

As part of that, Obama will announce a planned expansion of the Afghan army to 240,000 and the Afghan police to 160,000 by October 2013.

Obama will acknowledge the added costs of escalating the war, telling the country there are "limits on our resources, both from a manpower perspective and a budgetary perspective," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.

While calling for a larger army, Obama may leave out details of how he'd pay the financial cost of the escalation. Gibbs said the White House hadn't discussed a proposal from several liberal Democrats in Congress to impose an income tax surtax to pay for the escalation.

"I know the president will touch on costs. I don't expect to get overly detailed in the speech tomorrow," Gibbs said.

Obama also wants more help from NATO allies. He'll ask for another 7,000 to 10,000 NATO troops, which would come atop the 36,230 already there from U.S. allies, according to the NATO-International Security Assistance Force Web site.

He spoke Monday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both NATO members.

Brown said Monday that his country would send an additional 500 troops, raising the British total to 9,500, according to the NATO-ISAF Web site. "The extra troops will deploy in early December to thicken the U.K. troop presence in central Helmand," Brown told Parliament.

Sarkozy said that France would keep its 3,095 troops in Afghanistan until the country was "pacified and sovereign." He didn't say whether France would send more troops.

Obama also met at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and spoke by phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Despite the buildup, Obama will strive to assure a country that no longer supports the war that this is not another Vietnam, where President Lyndon Johnson kept escalating the war without success.

"You will hear the president discuss clearly that this is not open-ended," Gibbs said. "This is about what has to be done in order to ensure that the Afghans can assume the responsibility of securing their country."

Thus, Obama again will have benchmarks for success, for measuring how well the Afghan government is cleaning itself up and how well the fight against the Taliban is going. With the escalation of troops spread out — 5,000 additional troops per quarter, according to U.S. military officials _the president will have the option of maintaining that buildup or changing course.

Obama also will talk about Pakistan, and his hopes that better relations with the government will lead it to crack down on the Taliban and other terrorist groups within its borders. Many fled Afghanistan to hide out in Pakistan. Growing political tensions in Pakistan threaten the stability of the regime there.

"A good portion of the president's speech ... will discuss our relationship with Pakistan," Gibbs said.

"This is all part of what has to be a partnership. ... Without partners that are willing to do stuff in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, no number of American troops can solve all of those problems unless or until those steps are taken inside both of those countries where we see a change in the security situation."

ON THE WEB

How many troops NATO member nations have in Afghanistan

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Obama leaning toward 34,000 more troops for Afghanistan

Another Afghan war: Media leaks spark administration fight

Obama plans to send 34,000 more troops to Afghanistan

Should we pay higher taxes to cover the cost of Afghan war?

Exclusive: U.S. drafts Afghan 'Compact' it hopes will bolster new Karzai government

Taliban gain foothold in once-stable Afghan north

Trainers of Afghan police have work cut out for them

Obama: A good communicator, but not yet a great one

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service