- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

PHOENIX | Owning an increasingly difficult struggle in Afghanistan, President Obama told 5,000 veterans to brace for a daunting and perhaps bloody period in a war the United States has no choice but to fight.

“This is not a war of choice; this is a war of necessity,” Mr. Obama told a gathering of the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest military veterans group. “This is not only a war worth fighting; it is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

In a 35-minute speech to a group that harbors, in some instances, deep reservations about the president’s defense policies, Mr. Obama warned starkly that there “will be more difficult days ahead” as the U.S. military escalates operations against Islamist militants. He made the speech just days before Thursday’s crucial presidential election in Afghanistan.

“The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we wont defeat it overnight,” Mr. Obama said. “This will not be quick. This will not be easy.”

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

The Obama administration is in the midst of an escalation in Afghanistan, with 62,000 American troops now on Afghan soil, including 21,000 whom he dispatched as part of a “surge.” The president’s speech appeared in part to be aimed at preparing the country for the rough 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 Afghanistan war, Mr. Obama said, he will carefully look after the needs of returning troops and work to eliminate wasteful spending that he thinks is keeping the Pentagon from using the funds it 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 Afghanistan war and the one he inherited in Iraq.

The Afghanistan 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.”

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 subject, 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 out all troops by the end of 2011.

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

Peter D. Feaver, a former National Security Council adviser on Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, said that even if the U.S. military 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. 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,” Mr. Feaver said.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, who was another key Iraq adviser to Mr. Bush, 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.”

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 in Virginia to discuss new benefits for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the speech Monday appeared more mindful of concerns that have been dogging the president about his ability to limit spending of all sorts, including the military budget.

Mr. Obama told the group that 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, [the new helicopter] 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.”

Mr. Obama received some of the best reception when he 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 - Sen. John McCain.”

Mr. McCain was not in Phoenix to receive the compliment. 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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