Obama: U.S. security is still at stake

"As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan," Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- President Obama announced Tuesday that he will send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer and begin withdrawing forces in July 2011, making his case to the nation that Islamist extremism in the region remains an enduring threat to the security of Americans.

Obama cited the solemn responsibility he has felt as commander in chief as he outlined a sharp escalation that makes him the main architect of the eight-year-old war. The speech was among the most important of his presidency, and he sought to prepare the country for the heavier fighting and higher casualties that are likely to result from his strategy in the months ahead.

Addressing an audience of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, many of whom will be sent to the war in the coming year, he warned bluntly that "huge challenges remain" before U.S. forces begin leaving Afghanistan toward the end of his first term in office.

"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," he said, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Obama concluded a three-month review of war strategy by placing extraordinary confidence in a strained U.S. military and applying fresh pressure on the uncertain government of President Hamid Karzai to reform itself in months rather than years.

Adding 30,000 U.S. troops to the roughly 70,000 that are in Afghanistan now amounts to most of what Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, requested at the end of August. But by setting a date for when he will begin removing U.S. troops, scheduled to number about 100,000 by next summer, Obama is effectively holding McChrystal to the urgent timeline that the general laid out in a bleak assessment of the situation.

Obama's simultaneous escalation of the war effort and presentation of an exit plan reflects the divisions that emerged within his administration during the strategy review and the difficult politics he faces in selling his plan at home and abroad. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior officials who participated in that review, sometimes in opposition to one another, watched his speech from the front row of the academy's Eisenhower Hall.

As details of his strategy emerged Tuesday, some Republicans accused Obama of aiding the Taliban insurgency by setting a date to begin a withdrawal, even though administration officials said the pace will be determined by the country's security and political stability. Democrats criticized Obama for an expensive, if time-limited, expansion of an unpopular conflict at a time of economic hardship at home.

In a sign of how difficult it will be for the president to find support within his party, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a consistent Obama ally, offered only a terse statement: "President Obama asked for time to make his decision on a new policy in Afghanistan. I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight."

Obama spoke for about 40 minutes at this historic campus on the bank of the Hudson River. Clad in gray uniforms, the cadets watched placidly as the president delivered a largely technical argument for his war strategy, shifting toward the end to a lofty celebration of U.S. resilience and values.

Only occasionally did an audience with more at stake than most interrupt his remarks with applause. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 73 West Point graduates have died in foreign wars, and Obama told the cadets: "I know that this decision asks even more of you -- a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens."

But his audience extended beyond Eisenhower Hall to include a skeptical American public, reluctant allies abroad, a weak government in Pakistan and an Afghan population waiting to see whether international forces or the Taliban will win the war.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company