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Obama sets benchmarks for Afghanistan, Pakistan

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban there and in Pakistan, the administration told Congressional leaders on Thursday.

In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Obama is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago in hopes of justifying a deeper American commitment and prodding the governments in the region to take more responsibility for the political, military and economic missions there.

"The era of the blank check is over," Obama told the congressional leaders at the White House, according to an account of the meeting provided on the condition of anonymity because it was a private session.

The new strategy will send an additional 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 extra combat and support troops he already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office. For now, Obama has decided not to send more combat troops, although commanders at one point had requested a total of 30,000 more American troops.

The benchmarks Obama plans to set are, in effect, the most explicit demands ever presented by Washington to the government in Kabul, and Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review, which is to be made public today.

Officials did not provide details on Thursday, but American officials have repeatedly said Afghanistan needs to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban.

The key elements of Obama's plan, with its more robust combat force, its emphasis on training and its far-reaching goals, foreshadow an ambitious but risky and costly attempt to unify and stabilize Afghanistan, as well as its increasingly chaotic neighbor, Pakistan. It comes at a time when the conflict in Afghanistan is worsening, the lives of the people are not visibly improving and the intervention by American-led foreign powers is widely resented.

The goals Obama has settled on may be elusive and, according to some critics, even naive. Among other things, officials said he plans to recast the Afghan war as a regional issue involving Pakistan as well as India, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian nations.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee that would have to approve increased spending to carry out the new strategy, emerged from a closed-door briefing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to declare that he thought administration's review "was right on track."

Senate Republican leaders skipped the White House meeting, citing scheduling conflicts, although Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., later attended a separate briefing by Gates. Republicans generally withheld comment.

Obama sets benchmarks for Afghanistan, Pakistan 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 10:38pm]

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