Obama outlines Afghan troop surge, stresses exit strategy

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Looking to end one of America's longest wars, President Barack Obama will send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer, but start to withdraw at least some American forces in July 2011.

The first Marines could arrive in Afghanistan by Christmas, the vanguard of an accelerated buildup that would see all of the extra troops there by next summer.

"I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan," Obama said in a speech to cadets a the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

"I do not make this decision lightly," Obama said, stressing that he recognizes how weary Americans are with war, and how eager they are to focus most on rebuilding the battered U.S. economy.

"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," he said, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

New troops from the U.S. and its allies, Obama said, "will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."

His promise of a surge of troops, coupled with a timetable for beginning a withdrawal, was a grand gamble aimed at navigating among the military's request for more troops, Islamic insurgents' belief that they can outlast the U.S. and antiwar public opinion, especially among his fellow Democrats.

At the Pentagon, however, some officials already fretted that the strategy is rooted in the political realities in Washington, not in the burgeoning security problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's emphasis on a timeline for withdrawal, stressed by officials who briefed the media, could encourage the Taliban to wait out the U.S. effort, some fear.

Obama's escalation strategy is aimed at stopping terrorists from retaking hold of Afghanistan — their base for planning the 2001 attacks against the U.S. — while also signaling to the Afghan government that it must stand up to defend its own country, and to war skeptics in the U.S. that the war, now in its ninth year, won't drag on indefinitely.

To skeptics at home, he insisted repeatedly that terrorists are gaining ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and remain a grave threat to the U.S. He acknowledged the costs, saying that the escalation would cost at least $30 billion this year alone, coming atop nearly $1 trillion already spent in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars," he said, though he didn't say how he'd pay the added costs beyond working with Congress to find a solution.

Moreover, he said, the costs are one reason why the U.S. can't afford an open-ended commitment to wage war in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the U.S. is struggling to get back on its economic feet.

"That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended," he said, "because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

The West Point audience of about 4,250 included cadets and the families of cadets, as well as the secretaries of Defense, State and Veterans Affairs, and top Pentagon officers.

From Afghanistan, the U.S. commander who requested as many as 80,000 extra troops for his "low-risk" option called the final decision a good one.

"The Afghanistan-Pakistan review led by the president has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task," Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in a statement. "The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the president's address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security."

Obama defended his three-month-long deliberation on McChrystal's plea for more troops and a new strategy, dismissing criticisms that he delayed needed reinforcements.

"There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war," he said.

While Obama stressed the timetable to start withdrawing troops — the message he wanted to send to Afghanistan and anti-war Americans — administration officials stressed that the scheduled only sets the start of the withdrawal of U.S. forces and leaves it open for Obama to determine later whether and how quickly to keep withdrawing those troops and how long to take.

"Those variables — pace and end — will be dictated by conditions on the ground," a senior administration official said, one of two briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, which they insisted upon.

The official forecast a continued U.S. presence there for the foreseeable future, albeit with a much smaller footprint.

"While we do not intend . . . to commit American combat forces indefinitely to Afghanistan, we do reaffirm our long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, but not at anything like 100,000 U.S. troops in their country," the official said.

By reserving the ability to keep U.S. troops there until Afghan forces are able to defend their country, Obama hopes he's sending a message to terrorists that they can't simply wait him out.

"If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they're misjudging the president's approach," the official said.

Obama told Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the plan in an hour-long call late Monday night.

During the talk, Obama "emphasized that U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan are not open ended and must be evaluated toward measurable and achievable goals within the next 18 to 24 months," according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

"Both presidents agreed to redouble their efforts to improve the delivery of services to the Afghan people, particularly at the local level, and to reinvigorate economic development and investment, especially in the areas of agriculture, mining, water management, and energy."

Obama also called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari Tuesday morning, then briefed more than 30 leaders of the Congress from both major parties at the White House before leaving for West Point.

Obama laid out a plan he hopes will stop the Taliban's resurgence, clean up Afghanistan's government and stand up its own defense forces so that U.S. troops can start withdrawing.

He ordered the extra troops into Afghanistan by next summer, accelerating a plan that initially had called for the deployment to be phased in from March through the rest of the year.

The rapid dispatch of extra troops would bring the U.S. total there to 98,000, and if the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq proceeds on schedule, for the first time there would be more American troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq. A hoped-for addition of 5,000 to 10,000 more troops from NATO and other countries would boost their numbers to between 44,000 and 49,000.

Most of the surge forces will travel to southern Afghanistan, often to places where there've been few or no coalition forces. That will require setting up housing, sanitation and security structures for those forces. In addition, the military will have to get enough vehicles into Afghanistan for those forces.

The extra troops will help fight the Taliban, secure key towns and cities, and train Afghan forces. The plan calls for boosting the Afghan army from 95,000 now to 134,000 by October 2010. That stops short of a more ambitious goal of boosting the Afghan army to 240,000 and the police from 92,000 to 160,000 by 2013.

"We're actually taking this in smaller increments because we think that a goal that large and that far out . . . is more than we can accurately program for and predict the requirement for at this stage," a senior administration official said.

"We're going to aim to do what we've set ourselves out to do in 2010; and then based on that experience, adapt our milestones for 2011 and beyond."

On Pakistan, he said the "cancer" of terrorism has taken hold inside its borders and urged a stronger and better relationship to prod the government to crack down on terrorists within its borders.

"In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," he said.

"We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."

Beyond the military challenges, Obama also faced a herculean political challenge selling an escalation to a war-weary country, to liberals who want to get out altogether, to fiscal conservatives and others who worry about the cost of the escalation, and to conservatives who want to get more troops in faster.

Recent Gallup polls found two-thirds of Americans believe things are going badly there, the worst verdict in the eight years of the war.

The public is divided over sending more U.S. troops. Gallup found 47 percent support sending more troops, up 5 percentage points in two weeks, but still short of a majority. At the same time, 39 percent want to start withdrawing troops, down 5 points in two weeks.

Liberals complained that Obama's war will divert resources from priorities at home. "Perhaps nation building should begin at home," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "An escalation of the war in Afghanistan at a time of such economic dislocation and hardship raises questions about America's priorities and whether or not we are losing our way as we attempt to stride aside the globe as some Colossus."

At then same time, some conservatives lambasted Obama for taking more than three months to announce his decision and then for setting a timetable to start withdrawing troops.

"It worries me that the president's commitment to our mission does not match that of our troops on the ground," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

"It is troubling that the president rejected General McChrystal's full request for resources. Even more concerning, the president managed to declare the beginning and the end of a military operation at the same time. This type of conflicting message does not offer confidence to our allies, gives our friends and enemies' reason to doubt the president's resolve, and is simply counterproductive."

(Nancy A. Youssef and William Douglas contributed to this article.)

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