In Afghanistan speech, Obama will outline both escalation and exit

The White House is bracing for a tough sell of President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision on whether to commit tens of thousands of new U.S. forces to the stalemated war in Afghanistan. (Nov. 24)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When he talks to the nation next week about his Afghanistan strategy, President Obama will face the central challenge of explaining why he is escalating an eight-year-old war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public, while he also outlines plans for ending it.

Obama's prime-time address, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, will begin the White House effort to sell his revised war plan -- one leading scenario calls for sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops -- to powerful skeptics within his party, reluctant allies abroad and an Afghan public uncertain whether international forces or the Taliban will win the war.

Administration officials say the speech will outline a modest endgame for Afghanistan that would allow U.S. forces to leave and set a general time frame for achieving that result. The remarks will last about 40 minutes, officials said, roughly twice as long as then-President George W. Bush took to outline his Iraq "surge" strategy nearly three years ago.

Obama's speech is expected to include an appeal to NATO allies, which the president alluded to Tuesday, saying that "one of the things I'm going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners in this process."

"I've also indicated that after eight years -- some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done -- it is my intention to finish the job," Obama said during a news conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive."

What is emerging from White House discussions is a plan favored by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that would deploy between 30,000 and 35,000 additional U.S. troops and call on NATO allies to contribute another 10,000 soldiers. That would bring the total number of new allied troops to about 40,000, the number sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. There are currently 68,000 U.S. troops there.

Gates is asking for help at a time when the European public, even more than Americans, opposes any military escalation in Afghanistan, and Obama has in the past told Gates that he doubts that NATO leaders will agree to send additional forces, according to White House officials.

But Gates's proposal has won powerful advocates within the military and the administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It appears to be the most widely supported option, although Obama's advisers say he has yet to make known his final choice.

Long deliberation

Obama's decision to outline an escalation and an exit simultaneously is a result of months of deliberation over a military proposal to expand the war, with no assurance that doing so would result in a more stable Afghanistan. The debate exposed divisions within the administration over the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and, for the second time this year, forced Obama to reconsider his goals for what he once called a "necessary war."

Much of Obama's deliberation, according to White House advisers involved in the process, has been focused not only on ensuring that enough forces reach the battlefield but also on discouraging future troop requests if the security situation deteriorates. Obama has demanded that all troop options be explained in terms of realistic goals and timelines, an acknowledgment that the American public has limited patience for an expensive new military commitment at a time of economic hardship at home.

Some of Obama's most influential civilian advisers, led by Vice President Biden, favor a more narrow counterterrorism strategy that would accelerate the training of Afghan forces and intensify aerial strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Congressional Democrats prefer Biden's approach, and Obama has been considering a proposal that would send 10,000 additional U.S. troops.

In his address, White House advisers say, Obama intends to explain why his option is the right one to fight the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda and train Afghan troops to take over the fight. President Hamid Karzai said at his inauguration this month that he hopes the transition from U.S. to Afghan forces is complete within five years, giving the Obama administration a de facto timeline.

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