President Obama on Tuesday night declared that the Afghanistan war will not become a second Vietnam, and he pledged to start winding down the U.S. incursion in 2011, after his accelerated strategy to defeat terrorist groups and erect a functioning government takes hold.
Facing what was arguably the most perilous decision of his presidency, Mr. Obama deployed his most potent political weapon — his oratorical skill — in appealing to a war-weary American public for support of his plan to add 30,000 more troops to the battle.
“I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Mr. Obama said in a 30-minute, prime-time, televised address, delivered before 4,250 Army cadets on the campus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
“This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. 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.”
• TEXT: President Obama’s speech at West Point.
Using vivid language to recall the horrors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that first triggered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said his new strategy will be built around a single, clear premise: to deny al Qaeda and other extremist groups the ability to nest in the lawless mountains and barren flatlands of Central Asia.
“This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat,” he said. “In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda.”
The mission Mr. Obama set forth involves sending the additional U.S. troops over the next six months to secure Afghan population centers, train the Afghan security forces and wage a counterinsurgency strategy that aims to persuade the Afghan people to reject any efforts by the Taliban to return to power there.
The expanded force, when buttressed by an expanded international commitment, will involve more than 100,000 troops. Mr. Obama said they will work under the pressure of a limited window for success, and he promised to begin transferring forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011 - just as the 2012 election season gets under way.
It is, in large measure, the strategy originally advocated by the top U.S. commander in the field, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and many analysts have argued that it represents the best approach from among the many unpalatable options confronting Mr. Obama.
Still, the president faced a skeptical public Tuesday night. Public polling shows that support for Mr. Obama’s handling of the war has dropped to new lows.
In the speech, which the president delivered in a room filled with a stoic, gray-jacketed cadets, the president addressed emerging points of concerns about his strategy.
He challenged the notion that he would err by setting an 18-month timeline to begin a withdrawal, saying the deadline would put pressure on Afghans to take control of their country. He said that adding to the number of troops is not, as some have argued, a fruitless mission and that the status quo could not hold. He said he is not leading the country into a rerun of the Vietnam War.
“This argument depends upon a false reading of history,” he said.
Unlike Vietnam, he noted, U.S. forces are joined by those from 43 other nations. Unlike Vietnam, he said, the U.S. is not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. “And most importantly,” he said, “unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.”
Much of the most favorable reaction to the president’s decision came from Republicans. Dan Senor, who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush, said in a call with reporters that was organized by the Republican National Committee that he applauded the president’s decision — even if it took four months to reach.
After the president briefed congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, his former political rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, offered a stamp of support for the troop increase.
Where Mr. Obama faced the most immediate and vocal resistance to his plan Tuesday was within the left flank of his own party.
Democrats in the House, in particular, said they were wary of voting to send more troops into a war that has become increasingly unpopular and expensive. Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said he expects a movement among some within his party to block funding for the escalation.
Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal opponents of sending more troops, joined that movement Tuesday. He said he too would attempt to block funding for the additional troops, but he did not indicate whether he would find the 41 votes in the chamber necessary to sustain a filibuster.
Mr. Feingold said he was disappointed with the president’s speech.
“Its an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy,” he said.
Assuming he has sufficient congressional support to pay for it, the president has chosen an approach that is ambitious in its goals and its timeline, military and foreign-policy analysts said.
After moving the additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, the president said, he will direct American troops to train and fight alongside local security forces. At least one full brigade would be dedicated to training Afghan soldiers and police, officials said. The president said he wants U.S. troops and Afghan trainees to secure the country’s populated areas, some of which are still largely ungoverned.
He said he will launch a parallel civilian operation aimed at modernizing the national government, ridding it of corruption and rebuilding an agrarian-based Afghan economy with the help of American agricultural advisers. That approach, the president’s senior advisers said Tuesday, “offers the best promise for the quickest results.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, his foreign policy team would work on multiple fronts to try to stabilize a national government and armed forces that has been fending off increasingly aggressive moves by homegrown extremists to undermine their rule, Mr. Obama said.
“We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan,” Mr. Obama said. “That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.”
Mr. Obama described stronger military and civilian support for Pakistan, in which the U.S. commits to strengthening Pakistan’s capacity to target terrorists who seek safe haven there.
“Going forward,” he said, “the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.”
Administration officials said one benefit of this fresh approach is that it creates a sense of urgency, both for U.S. forces and for Afghan and Pakistani government officials. Top aides Tuesday said the president chose the strategy in part because it was the one that moved faster than any other options presented to him.
Senior administration officials cautioned, though, that the notion of setting a July 2011 date for ending the conflict should not be misconstrued by his political opponents, or by the enemy. No date has been set for a firm exit, they said. The July 2011 reference set a marker only for the military to start drawing down.
“Remember what July 2011 represents,” said one top official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not wish to pre-empt the president’s speech. “It represents the beginning of a process which will be conditions-based. So if the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they’re misjudging the president’s approach.”
To the extent this rapid buildup and heavy investment raised any doubts from congressional Republicans, it was out of a concern that the military was being pushed beyond its limits.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, Armed Services Committee member and one of just a handful of House Republicans to oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, said he has concerns about the stability of a volunteer U.S. military force that has been fighting two wars since March 2003.
“My concern is we are about to break the military,” Mr. Jones said, noting conversations that he’s had with generals and military officers. “We are about to wear out the military.”