- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

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.”

“The interesting test will be what he’ll do two years from now if a responsible withdrawal requires some tweaking of that deadline,” said Mr. Feaver, a professor of political science and international relations at Duke University. “My guess is he will tweak it.”

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a key adviser on Iraq to former President George W. Bush, advised that the Obama administration should “put a premium on maintaining flexibility within the time lines that have been established, particularly given that 2010 has the potential to be a very volatile year for Iraq.”

At the end of 2011, she said, “it is conceivable that both the United States and Iraq could see it as in their interests to negotiate some kind of modest follow-on agreement, particularly in light of the fact that Iraq will be unlikely to protect itself from all external threats for some time to come.”

The president’s speech was not his first on military matters. In February, Mr. Obama laid out his plans for withdrawal from Iraq during a speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Earlier this month, he visited George Mason University to discuss new benefits for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this speech appeared more mindful of concerns that have been dogging the president about his ability to keep a lid on spending of all sorts, including for the military budget.

Mr. Obama told the group he has put an end to unnecessary no-bid contracts, reformed defense procurement “so weapons systems don’t spin out of control” and proposed cutting tens of billions of dollars in projects he said were not needed. He referred specifically to the F-22 fighter jets, plans for a new engine for the Joint Strike Fighter and billions of dollars for a new presidential helicopter that he has opposed in recent spending bills on Capitol Hill.

“Maybe you heard about this,” he said. “Among other capabilities, it would let me cook a meal while under nuclear attack. I’ll tell you something — if the United States of America is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack.”

The talk of reform garnered some positive reviews from the veterans, who sat quietly through most of the speech.

“If he does what he says, it will be fine,” said Milo Hazen, 80, a Korean War veteran from Syracuse, Neb. “But I worry he’s just a windjammer, full of bull. A great speaker who can’t do a lot, and probably won’t even try.”

One of the best-received moments of the speech came when the president tipped his hat to his Republican rival for the presidency. Saying government waste is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue, he said he was “glad that I have a partner in this effort in a great veteran, a great Arizonan and a great American who has shown the courage to stand and fight this waste — Senator John McCain.”

Mr. McCain was not in Phoenix to receive the compliment, though. He was spending a portion of his August recess on a fact-finding mission to Iraq.

Jon Ward and Willis Witter contributed to this report.

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