Obama warns of hard times ahead in Afghanistan

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PHOENIX — President Obama urged more than 5,000 veterans gathered here to brace for a daunting and perhaps bloody period ahead in Afghanistan, but told them he believes this war is “fundamental to the defense of our people.”

“As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead,” the president said at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy.”

In a 35-minute speech to a group that harbors, in some cases, deep reservations about the president’s war policy, Mr. Obama took firm ownership of the long-running Afghan initiative. The speech came as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections on Thursday.

Hamid Karzai, 51, the incumbent, is expected to win re-election despite widespread criticism among ordinary Afghans and Western critics of weak leadership and tolerance of rampant corruption and drug trafficking. A late surge by his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, threatens to deny Mr. Karzai the 50 percent margin needed to win outright in the first round of voting.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s administration is in the midst of an escalation in Afghanistan, with 62,000 American troops now on Afghan soil, including 21,000 that he dispatched as part of the so-called “surge.” The president’s speech appeared in part to be aimed at preparing the country for the road ahead.

“These new efforts have not been without a price,” he said. “The fighting has been fierce. More Americans have given their lives.”

As he prosecutes the Afghan war, Mr. Obama pledged he would carefully look after the needs of returning troops and would work hard to eliminate the wasteful spending that he believes is gumming up the funds he needs to get the job done.

To drive home his defense of the effort under way in Afghanistan, the president made clear reference to the contrasts between the Afghan initiative and the one he inherited in Iraq.

The Afghan war, he said, “will be based on good intelligence and guided by a sound strategy … I will give you a clear mission, defined goals, and the equipment and support you need to get the job done.”

“We must never forget,” he added. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity… . This is not only a war worth fighting, it is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

His discussion of the Iraq war offered a sharp point in contrast. After more than six years, he said, the United States has taken important steps forward, transferring control of all cities and towns to Iraq’s security services in June and beginning the transition to an Iraq with full responsibility for its own security.

Using some of his most pointed language on the topic, he told the veterans that the military will begin removing combat brigades from Iraq later this year, remove all combat brigades by the end of next August and bring home all troops by the end of 2011.

“And for America,” he said, “the Iraq war will end.”

Peter D. Feaver, a National Security Council adviser on Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, said that even if the United States meets the 2011 withdrawal deadline, the number of U.S. troops still allowed in Iraq would remain in the thousands and possibly tens of thousands under an agreement between the governments in Washington and Baghdad.

In addition, Mr. Feaver said that while Mr. Obama has “always been very clear that he views those deadlines as hard deadlines … two years is a long time from now, so a lot could happen between now and then.”

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