- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

President Obama said Friday that he will send more troops to Afghanistan, more money to Pakistan and push for renewed diplomatic attention to the region to combat terrorism — moves met with a positive international response as the president prepares to travel abroad to build support for his new strategy.

Mr. Obama said his administration’s review found that the status of the seven-year-long war is “increasingly perilous” and declared 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.”

The announcement drew a largely positive response from across the U.S. political spectrum as well as abroad. A veterans’ group even suggested that he “gets it.” But Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told The Washington Times that the steps were not enough and called it “incrementalism.”

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The Afghan government, put in place after U.S.-led forces overturned the Taliban in 2001, welcomed Mr. Obama’s promise to send 4,000 more troops to join 17,000 on the way, bringing total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 60,000 by August, when the country is scheduled to hold presidential elections.

President Hamid Karzai, who is fighting for his political future, said the new strategy “will bring Afghanistan and the international community closer to success,” the Associated Press reported.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said he also welcomed the initiative and urged Congress to implement it by approving $1.5 billion in annual aid to Pakistan for the next five years.

Speaking as a suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar, near the Afghan border, killed dozens, Mr. Zardari said the creation of reconstruction opportunity zones in Pakistani tribal areas would help defeat terrorism by alleviating poverty.

“Pakistan has always maintained that without going into the root cause, the menace of terrorism cannot be overcome and that is only possible by providing the people there with employment opportunities,” Mr. Zardari said.

Mr. Obama outlined the new policy at a small event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and later told troops in attendance, “We’re proud of you.”

Many of the 4,000 additional U.S. troops will be military trainers sent to upgrade Afghan forces so that they can eventually dispense with foreign help.

Mr. Obama set goals of 134,000 troops for the Afghan army, a doubling of its current size, and 82,000 for Afghan police, also twice its current effective strength, by 2011.

Afghan experts have argued for even larger Afghan forces.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and South Asia expert who supervised the policy review, told The Times that “if it looks as though we need to do more, we’ll do more.”

In remarks that could be interpreted as a jab at former President George W. Bush, however, Mr. Obama promised, “We will not blindly stay the course,” and his advisers repeatedly stressed flexibility and ongoing reviews of the policy.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, declared on his Twitter feed it was now Mr. Obama’s war: “Not Bush war any longer.”

The United States also aims to expand international involvement in the conflict. Mr. Riedel said Mr. Obama would ask for European army and police trainers when he goes to a NATO summit in France next week.

Administration advisers said Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would also be looking for financial contributions. Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters that Japan will be paying salaries for the Afghan national police over the next six months, and that other countries have privately committed to sending troops to help stabilize the country during the summer elections.

Despite reports that the administration considered announcing a multiyear commitment of large numbers of U.S. troops, the advisers repeatedly balked at speculating how many American servicemen and women will be on the ground a year from now and stressed that the plan is a road map, not a “straightjacket.” “The president feels very strongly that this strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable,” Mr. Riedel said, adding that the administration will “re-evaluate periodically how we’re doing, what’s working, what’s not working, make mid-course corrections and adjustments.” Mr. McCain, however, questioned the logic of the president’s plan.

“There’s a little bit of incrementalism in that, that could make the decision tougher this fall when the situation is tougher,” he told editors and reporters of The Times.

Told that the Taliban had compared U.S. forces to the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, Mr. Riedel said he wasn’t surprised by the response, accusing the militant group of wanting “to take Afghanistan back to the medieval hell that they created in the 1990s.” But he stressed there could be fractures within the insurgency and people who may be reconciliable, especially if economic conditions in the country improve.

Review co-chairman Michelle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said there is “absolutely” no valid comparison between the U.S. action and the Soviet occupation because the United States has no desire to rule Afghanistan.

Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said the president’s policy was too troop-centric and that the United States can disrupt terrorist havens “without an enormous military presence on the ground.”

The analyst said any assistance should be tied to benchmarks to avoid an open-ended commitment that could impede Afghanistan’s progress toward self-sufficiency. The Obama administration has promised benchmarks but not specified them.

The review team repeatedly declined to take sides in the upcoming elections, saying only that they want a continuity of government in the period from when Mr. Karzai’s term officially ends May 22 to the Aug. 20 election.

“We support the elected leadership of Afghanistan and we support the elected leadership of Pakistan,” Mr. Riedel said.

Mr. Obama, who opposed the Iraq war as “dumb” and a distraction from the effort in Afghanistan, said al Qaeda is a “cancer” that threatens the entire region.

He added that the “campaign against extremism” reaches all nations, that Muslims have suffered “in far greater numbers than any other people” from al Qaeda’s violent acts. The new strategy got a largely positive response from Capitol Hill.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said he was glad the president was turning his attention to “the forgotten war.” Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said the strategy should be broader and more regional, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his party would work with the Democratic president and supports the “surge” of troops.

Antiwar groups were largely silent in contrast to protests last month after Mr. Obama announced a slow withdrawal from Iraq.

Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, chairman of grass-roots group VoteVets.org, said the move proves Mr. Obama “gets it” and urged his group’s 105,000 members to sign a petition supporting the new plan.

Mr. Holbrooke said in the review process “hundreds of ideas” were debated, including how to develop Afghan farming.

The 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.

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.

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

The strategy was announced after months of meetings and consultations with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A U.S. envoy will host bilateral meetings with officials from those countries every six to eight weeks. Trilateral meetings will be scheduled every quarter.

Mr. Holbrooke said he views the U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan as “pretty basic: We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems.”

— Nasir Khan in Islamabad and Barbara Slavin in Washington contributed to this report.

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