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Obama sees troop surge in Afghanistan, then pullback

WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he would speed 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in coming months, but he vowed to start bringing U.S. forces home in July 2011, saying that America could not afford an open-ended commitment and that it was time for Afghans to take more responsibility for their country.

Saying he could "bring this war to a successful conclusion," Obama set out a strategy that would seek to reverse Taliban gains in large parts of Afghanistan, protect the Afghan people from attacks, provide time for Afghanistan to build its own military capacity and a more effective government and increase pressure on al-Qaida in Pakistan.

"I see firsthand the terrible ravages of war," Obama told 4,000 cadets, in a somber speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow. So no, I do not make this decision lightly."

The speech was the culmination of a review that lasted three months. In it, he sought to convince an increasingly skeptical nation that the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the continued existence of al-Qaida across the border in Pakistan were direct threats to American security, and that he could achieve the seemingly contradictory goals of scaling up American involvement in the war even as he seeks to bring it responsibly to a close.

His message was directed at audiences beyond the American public. He called on foreign allies to step up their commitment, declaring, "This is not just America's war."

He delivered a pointed message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying, "The days of providing a blank check are over."

Addressing critics who have likened Afghanistan to Vietnam, Obama called the comparison "a false reading of history."

And he spoke directly to the American people about the tough road ahead. "Let me be clear: None of this will be easy," Obama said. "The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies."

With the economy weak and the issue of jobs foremost on Americans' minds, he conceded that the new strategy would carry an expensive price tag, which he put at $30 billion this year.

Yet with some Democrats talking of a war surtax, Obama offered scant details of how he intended to pay for his new policy, beyond saying that he is "committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly."

White House advisers said they expected the administration would do so in the coming weeks, as officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates testify on Capitol Hill starting today.

The strategy that Obama outlined incorporated the basic approach and came close to the force levels proposed in the counterinsurgency plan that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, put forward in his blunt 66-page report in September.

In that report, McChrystal said, in stark language, that unless significantly more troops were sent, the war in Afghanistan was likely to be lost.

But by including an explicit timetable to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops at an as-yet undetermined pace, Obama highlighted the seemingly conflicting pressures defining the debate over how to proceed: to do what is necessary to ensure that the region is not a launching pad for attacks on America and its allies, and to disengage militarily as quickly as possible.

The initial political reactions showed the crosscurrents facing the White House. Republicans applauded the buildup of troops but questioned the commitment to a timetable for bringing them home, while many Democrats in both the House and the Senate said they were prepared to break with Obama on escalating the war, calling the proposal a serious mistake.

A new survey by the Gallup organization, released Tuesday, showed only 35 percent of Americans now approve of Obama's handling of the war; 55 percent disapprove.

Obama is trying to use his own domestic politics at home to his advantage in pressing Karzai to move quickly to get his own government in shape. He is calculating, administration officials said, that the explicit promise of a drawdown starting in July 2011 will impress upon the Afghan government that his commitment is not open-ended.

Obama was less clear publicly on how he planned to address the issue of Pakistan. He said Pakistan and the United States "share a common enemy" in Islamic terrorists. "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. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border."

Administration officials said that Obama had signed off on a plan by the CIA to expand CIA activities in Pakistan. The CIA plan calls for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft, sending additional spies to Pakistan and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the CIA's overall budget for operations inside the country.

The strategy for Afghanistan also includes expanded economic development and reconciliation with less radical members of the Taliban. In addition, Obama is making tougher demands on the Afghan government; he spent an hour on the phone Monday night with Karzai, White House officials said and pressed him on the need to combat the corruption and drug trafficking, which many Western officials say has fueled the resurgence of the Taliban.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Obama sees troop surge in Afghanistan, then pullback 12/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 7:23am]
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