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Afghan Plan Met With Cautious Approval

U.S. President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on December 1, 2009 in West Point, New York.
Win McNamee
U.S. President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on December 1, 2009 in West Point, New York.

President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan received a cautiously positive assessment Wednesday from the top U.S. commander in the region, NATO allies and even congressional Republicans. But the response from many Democratic lawmakers was more skeptical.

In a prime-time speech Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the president outlined his strategy to raise the level of U.S. and NATO troops in the short-term, while setting an 18-month timetable for the start of a strategic withdrawal. The planned surge of U.S. troops would raise the American military presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000.

"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," he added. "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."

Following the speech, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he was "absolutely supportive" of the timeline laid out by the president.

McChrystal said that even if the Taliban try to wait out the surge, the 18-month period allows time to bolster Afghan military and governing capabilities to make it harder for militants to return. However, he said the target date of July 2011 to begin a drawdown of troops in the region would depend on conditions on the ground.

After meeting with President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday, McChrystal called the Afghan leader's reaction to the new U.S. strategy "really positive."

"The president was very upbeat, very resolute this morning," he said. "I really believe that everybody's got a focus now that's sharper than it was 24 hours ago."

The Taliban responded Wednesday by saying the White House plan would only make them fight harder.

"This strategy by the enemy will not benefit them. However many more troops the enemy sends against our Afghan mujahedeen, they are committed to increasing the number of mujahedeen and strengthen their resistance," the Taliban said in a statement e-mailed to media.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged European and other allies to contribute more troops to the fight, saying the war in Afghanistan was not America's alone.

Rasmussen said he expects the allies to boost the NATO-led force by more than 5,000 troops. He said the best way to overcome widespread public opposition in Europe was to demonstrate progress in the war, which could be accomplished by turning over control to Afghan forces in areas where the security situation is good.

Republicans, many of whom had accused the Obama administration of foot-dragging on the Afghanistan decision, had mostly good things to say about the substance of the president's speech, but they were critical of his decision to set a timetable for withdrawal.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Homeland Security, said he supported the president's decision.

"I hope it's enough," he told CNN Tuesday night. "If Gen. McChrystal says it's enough, that's good by me."

But Graham made it clear he would have preferred something closer to the 40,000 troops McChrystal had initially requested.

"The outcome in Afghanistan is tied to Pakistan, and the results could be catastrophic if we fail," he said. "The price of success is enormous also, so we should be all in."

Sen. John McCain told Fox News that he liked what the president had to say but thought the administration's new Afghan policy took too long to emerge.

"This policy is one that Gen. McChrystal, Secretary [of Defense] Gates and Gen. Petraeus believe will succeed. And that is a counter-insurgency strategy that's properly resourced," McCain said. "There's other areas that have to be done, but I support this policy."

In his speech, the president responded to criticism that he had dithered in his decision, saying there had never been an option before him for troop deployments before 2010. "So, there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war," he said.

McCain and other GOP lawmakers have objected to setting a timetable for withdrawal. By marking a start date to begin a drawdown, 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 time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," Obama said in Tuesday's speech. "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."

Obama may face more skepticism from his own party than from Republicans. Many Democrats said they weren't convinced that sending more troops will hasten an end to the war.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday that he thinks the president "came to the wrong conclusion."

"The ending date he proposed last night was not really an ending date. It was the beginning of a process," he said.

"It could take years and years more," McGovern told NPR. "I think sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will make it 30,000 times harder to get out of this mess."

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), called the plan "an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."

Even so, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which planned to grill top administration officials Wednesday on Obama's decision, said he expected Democrats to back the $30 billion war spending request.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all were expected to testify.

They are likely to expound on the plan's 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 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 jumpstart the transfer of responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the Afghan government, officials say.

In his speech, the president made an oblique reference to elements in Pakistan's intelligence and military sectors that have supported insurgents, including Taliban fighters. But he praised Pakistan for its recent offensives against militants and pledged a deeper partnership.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the country "looks forward to engaging closely with [the] U.S. in understanding the full import of the new strategy and to ensure that there would be no adverse fallout on Pakistan."

During the first eight months of 2009, there were nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan — more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data. The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the U.S. has spent close to $227 billion.

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