Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Announcing that he would send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Obama tried to strike a delicate balance in a prime-time address to the nation Tuesday night by detailing his plan for a significant short-term strategic surge while also laying out a start date for an eventual withdrawal.
Obama used the speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to try to explain to a skeptical American public why the extra troops — to be deployed to Afghanistan by next summer — can reverse the sharply deteriorating security situation there.
The increase, which Obama said will cost an estimated $30 billion, will bring the total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000, while aides say they are expecting additional commitments of NATO troops as well.
"I do not make this decision lightly," Obama said. "I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11 and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak."
For the first time, Obama laid down a partial timetable for withdrawal, saying that troops will begin leaving Afghanistan in 18 months.
"Taken together, these additional American and international troops 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," Obama said.
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," he said.
Aides stress that the pace and eventual end date of that departure remain undetermined and will be adjusted according to conditions on the ground.
By setting a start date for withdrawal, Obama said he was trying to create added momentum for building up the capacity of the Afghan government and its security forces.
"The absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," Obama said. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
The influx of 30,000 troops has three main aims: to reverse the Taliban's momentum, to secure major towns and cities and to train Afghan forces as quickly as possible. The additional troops will include at least two or three combat brigades, as well as a large contingent of soldiers dedicated to training Afghan security forces.
In one key change, the president is ordering all U.S. forces in Afghanistan to partner full-time with the Afghan army and police to help them with training. The aim is to jump-start the transfer of responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the Afghan government, officials say.
The deployment of 30,000 more troops is fewer than the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recommended in a confidential report to Obama in September.
Pentagon sources told NPR that Obama has asked NATO members to contribute an additional 5,000 troops, and officials say they expect NATO to offer additional troops by the end of the week.
"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan," Obama said. "Now, we must come together to end this war successfully."
The strategic overhaul is the result of a three-month White House policy review that was prompted by sharply rising violence amid a Taliban resurgence and a flawed presidential election that undermined the Afghan government's credibility. It also follows Obama's decision in February to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan during his first strategic review.
Republicans had accused the president of "dithering" on his decision-making, but Obama defended the three-month review.
"Let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010," he said, "so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period."
But during the first eight months of 2009, there were nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks — more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data.
He also made reference to the Iraq war, noting that the Bush administration's decision to invade Baghdad diverted key resources from the Afghan conflict.
"When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war," Obama said. "Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive."
Obama's new strategy shifts the focus of the U.S. military away from pursuing Taliban extremists into the most remote corners of the country. Instead, U.S. and NATO soldiers will spend more time guarding the more heavily populated towns and cities to better protect the Afghan people and try to build zones of stability.
The strategic overhaul also includes new civilian initiatives, including the deployment of additional civilian experts to Afghanistan. The Obama administration is setting agriculture as its top development priority there.
More broadly, Obama was trying to demonstrate that the U.S. is working toward a broad exit strategy without sparking fear in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere that Washington is planning a precipitous withdrawal.
"This is not an open-ended commitment on behalf of the president," says a senior administration official.
Obama also acknowledged the high cost of the war, particularly as the country is just coming out of a painful recession.
"That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended —because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own," he said.