- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

UPDATED:

President Barack Obama on Friday announced he will send 4,000 more troops this spring to Afghanistan, saying the situation in the more than seven-year-long war is “increasingly perilous” and pledging U.S. aid for Pakistan as part of an international diplomatic effort.

“I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,” he said. “That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”

Mr. Obama, who opposed the Iraq war as “dumb” and distracting from the effort in Afghanistan, stressed the plan was a “comprehensive new strategy.”

He said al Qaeda is a “cancer” that threatens the entire region and said the United States and its allies would root out the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists,” he said.

Lawmakers overseeing defense issues lauded the long-expected move, the result of a review that began when Mr. Obama took office. But anti-war groups said they fear a sustained conflict and more deaths.

The president noted that 2008 was the deadliest year of the war and said he wants an international effort for the “campaign against extremism.”

“This is not simply an American problem,” he said, but rather “an international security challenge of the highest order.”

As anti-war groups compared his escalation plan to U.S. efforts in Vietnam, Mr. Obama said he understands voter concern about the purpose of the war and said his goal is to defeat “the terrorists who supported and planned the 9/11 attacks.”

He said the Afghan government cannot fall to the extremist Taliban or it would “again be a base for terrorists,” and said the influx of troops — 21,000 in total with the addition of 17,000 Mr. Obama sent earlier this year — will help train Afghan police.

Mr. Obama proposed tripling U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, giving the country $1.5 billion each year over the next five years and appointed veteran Amb. Richard Holbrooke to be “special representative” for both countries. He also said he wants an increased civilian effort to send teachers, doctors and other aid workers to the region.

“Our efforts will fail … if we don’t invest in their future,” he said, standing next to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

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House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said he was glad the president was turning his attention to “the forgotten war.”

“There is no guarantee of success with this strategy, but not having a strategy, as we have not for the past eight years, is certainly a guarantee of failure,” Mr. Skelton said.

In remarks that could be interpreted as a jab at former President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama promised, “We will not blindly stay the course.”

Mr. Obama cited the grim statistics from the 2001 terrorist attacks, saying more than 3,000 were killed for “doing nothing more than going about their daily lives,” and smacked his podium for emphasis. Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, chairman of grassroots group VoteVets.org, said the move proves Mr. Obama “gets it.”

“The president recognizes that the war against terrorists requires much more than just throwing troops at the problem. That alone will go a long way toward setting policies that make America safer, and taking the burden off our military,” he said, urging the group’s 105,000 members to sign a petition supporting the new plan.

The Washington Times reported key elements of the plan last week, including increased financial aid and helicopters to help Pakistan ferry its troops to remote areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to fight the Taliban and its tribal allies.

Administration officials previewing the speech Thursday night said a key goal is to convince people in Pakistan that the war is not only a U.S. fight, but also their own battle. They said that sense has been lost and that many in the United States consider the fight to be “Bush’s war.”

Members of Congress were briefed Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, told the Associated Press that the training group is needed because there aren’t enough U.S. military advisers in the region. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told the wire service that it seemed like a viable strategy as long as the manpower is there.

“I know we need more than the 17,000,” he said.

A participant in the Afghanistan-Pakistan review told The Times last week that it makes economic and political sense to build a bigger Afghan army because it costs about $12,000 a year to support one Afghan soldier compared with $250,000 a year for an American.

Administration officials said Thursday night that the administration will lay out benchmarks such as incidents of violence and number of suicide bombings, and would regularly measure to determine whether the strategy was working.

The additional troops will be fully in place by fall. Officials said they hope to have their first evaluation of how the plan is working by the fall or winter.

The goal, the senior administration official said, will be “to disrupt, dismantle and eventually destroy al Qaeda’s safe havens and sanctuaries in Pakistan its infrastructure, its support network and to deprive it from being able to develop such sanctuaries in Afghanistan.”

The president said he wants Afghanistan’s army to reach 134,000 troops and the police force to reach 82,000.

The strategy is being announced after months of meetings and consultations with Presidents Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, including personal discussions by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. White House officials said they think they have convinced the two foreign leaders about the strategy.

A U.S. envoy will host bilateral meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan every six to eight weeks. Trilateral meetings, such as the one Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held with the two nations, will be scheduled every quarter.

Mr. Obama will not give blank checks to the two nations, officials said.

“We’re certainly looking for performance and change in behavior on the Pakistani side,” an official said.

The officials who briefed reporters said they will not negotiate with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former head of the Taliban government, but do see the potential to talk with some Taliban factions that could be encouraged to split off.

Mr. Obama’s aides described a grim picture of the situation, arguing the Taliban has made a “very significant comeback” in the past two years and al Qaeda remains a threat, seeking to attack the United States and its allies.

Mr. Holbrooke told reporters that Afghan President Hamid Karzai phoned the administration after the speech.

“[He] said he watched the speech live on CNN from Kabul … [and] was extremely gratified by it,” Mr. Holbrooke said, adding the Afghan leader would soon issue a supportive statement.