Obama Outlines Afghan Strategy
He Pushes Stability and Regional Partnerships

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

President Obama introduced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday with a threat assessment familiar from the Bush administration. "The terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks," he said, are continuing to devise plots designed to "kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

Elements of the Obama plan to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaeda in Pakistan and vanquish its Taliban allies in Afghanistan also struck notes from the past. More U.S. troops, civilian officials and money will be needed, he said. Allies will be asked for additional help, and local forces will be trained to eventually take over the fight. Benchmarks will be set to measure progress.

But Obama sought to separate his approach from what he has described as years of unfocused, failed policy while President George W. Bush directed his attention and U.S. resources toward Iraq. Obama pledged to tighten U.S. focus on Pakistan and build a better "partnership" with its government and military. Beyond stepping up the ground fight against the Taliban, he said, he plans to target far more resources toward a narrower set of Afghan problems: government incompetence, opium cultivation and heroin trafficking, and a poorly equipped and trained army.

Bush spoke regularly of establishing a "flourishing democracy" in Afghanistan. But Obama, flanked during a White House speech by his top national security Cabinet members and advisers, made clear that his primary objective is to create a country stable and strong enough to prevent al-Qaeda from reoccupying Afghan territory.

"To succeed, we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban's gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government. . . . Afghanistan has an elected government, but it is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people," Obama said.

He indicated that the United States expects to continue to carry the bulk of the combat load and will seek other forms of assistance from allies, a departure from the Bush administration's effort over the past two years to persuade NATO partners to send more combat troops to Afghanistan. "We seek not simply troops," Obama said, "but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections" scheduled for August, "training Afghan security forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people."

Obama said that he would send 4,000 U.S. troops -- beyond the additional 17,000 he authorized last month -- to work as trainers and advisers to the Afghan army, and hundreds more civilian officials and diplomats to help improve governance and the country's economy. When currently scheduled deployments are completed late this summer, U.S. troops in Afghanistan will total more than 60,000, twice as many as the non-U.S. NATO contingent.

While Bush rejected any contact with Afghan neighbor Iran, Obama said that he plans to bring together "all who should have a stake in the security of the region," including Iran, Russia, China and India, as part of a new international contact group he said he will form with the United Nations.

Obama said events in Pakistan are "inextricably linked" to success in Afghanistan. Pakistan, he said, "needs our help in going after al-Qaeda," whose leadership, along with a network of other insurgent groups, is located in the rugged mountains on the Afghan border. The Islamabad "government's ability to destroy these safe havens is tied to its own strength and security," Obama said. He pledged support for a new $7.5 billion aid package, new military equipment, and a constancy and concentration of effort.

But "after years of mixed results, we will not provide a blank check," he said. "Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken -- one way or the other -- when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets."

Although the administration has accelerated missile attacks from unmanned Predator aircraft on insurgent targets in western Pakistan, it is not believed to have resumed ground attacks by military Special Forces and CIA operatives. Bush authorized such missions last summer.

Other elements of Obama's strategy have been tried before, but administration and intelligence officials think that the sharper U.S. focus on the region will give leaders renewed resolve as well as political cover for going after extremist groups. In the past, Pakistani leaders have been reluctant to support U.S.-backed counterterrorism efforts because of public opposition to what many Pakistanis consider Washington's war.

Congressional reaction to the announcement was largely positive. "We've said for some time that we must refocus our resources on threats like al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement saying: "I support the strategy the president unveiled today because it reflects the advice of our commanders on the ground."

Obama said of the additional resources his policy will require: "I do not ask for this support lightly. These are challenging times, and resources are stretched. But the American people must understand that this is a down payment on our own future."

Neither Obama, nor the senior officials who fanned out yesterday to brief reporters on the plan, provided cost details.

"This strategy is not intended to be a campaign plan or a straitjacket," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed an intense 60-day White House policy review that led to Obama's announcement. It was designed to be flexible, he said, and criteria outlined by Obama and others -- levels of violence and casualties in Afghanistan, Pakistani attacks against insurgents and accounting for U.S. aid -- would be used to determine whether course corrections were needed.

Afghanistan, Obama said, "will see no end to violence if insurgents move freely back and forth across the border" with Pakistan. But details on how the movement would be stopped, and how al-Qaeda and other groups would be rousted from their havens in Pakistan, were similarly scarce.

That is "the most daunting" problem, said Richard L. Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to the region, because Pakistan is "a sovereign country and there is a red line . . . unambiguous and stated publicly by the Pakistani government over and over again: no foreign troops on our soil."

"The short answer," Riedel said, "is that the combination of aggressive military operations on the Afghan side, and working energetically with the Pakistani government to shut down these safe havens, creates the synergy which we hope will then lead to their destruction."

Holbrooke and Riedel sought to sell the strategy to a small group of influential South Asia scholars and analysts, among them James Dobbins of the Rand Corp. and Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a White House meeting yesterday. The attendees reacted favorably to the Afghanistan recommendations, but several were deeply skeptical that the United States would be able to achieve its policy goals in Pakistan, according to one person who attended the meeting.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) similarly praised the Afghan elements of the policy and welcomed "the new focus on Pakistan." But he said in a statement that he is "skeptical that the Pakistanis will secure their border" and warned against tying Afghanistan's future "too tightly to Pakistan's governmental decisions."

Asked about the campaign against Afghan corruption, Holbrooke said, "We're not going to lay out how we're going to deal with it. To some extent, we don't know yet."

Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Ann Scott Tyson and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company