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.
A minority of Americans believe the battle remains worth fighting, according to recent opinion polls, and Obama's decision to rapidly deploy tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops, along with his appeal to NATO allies for more forces, will sharply intensify the conflict in the coming months.
More than 920 U.S. troops have died in the Afghanistan operation since 2001, and the pace of combat deaths has accelerated this year with Obama's earlier decision to send an additional 22,000 forces, along with 11,000 that administration officials say were authorized by his predecessor. So far this year, 298 U.S. troops have died in the Afghan effort, surpassing the 155 who died last year.
In his assessment of the conflict, McChrystal wrote that the war probably would be won or lost in the next 18 months. Senior administration officials emphasized that July 2011 -- about 18 months from when the first batch of additional U.S. troops arrives in Afghanistan -- will mark the start of the U.S. withdrawal.
Administration officials have said that, while the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a military and political force, the goal is to weaken the movement to the extent that it cannot threaten the central government or provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda.
Obama is essentially gambling that Karzai, reelected last month by default, will feel more pressure to reform his government and that the Taliban will not simply wait out the U.S. military presence.
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," Obama said. "But it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
Many of Obama's political advisers, including Vice President Biden, argued for a more narrowly focused counterterrorism strategy that would have accelerated Afghan troop training, stepped up aerial drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and helped shore up the nuclear-armed government of Pakistan against a Taliban insurgency inside its borders.
Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, also opposed sending additional troops, arguing that doing so would increase Karzai's dependence on the U.S. military and prolong the country's involvement in the war.
Although Obama selected more troops than Biden and Eikenberry had wanted, the specific timeline he set for the start of the withdrawal was a nod to their concerns, administration officials said.
"The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades," Obama said. "They have been confronted with occupation -- by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al-Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand: America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country."
In his speech, Obama appealed to NATO allies, which under his strategy will be asked to contribute at least 5,000 additional troops. In many European countries, the conflict is even less popular than it is in the United States, and few governments so far have stepped forward with new commitments.
"We must come together to end this war successfully," Obama said. "For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility -- what's at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world."
The president reaffirmed that destroying al-Qaeda is the chief objective of his strategy and emphasized that turning over government and security responsibilities to Afghans as quickly as possible is essential to the mission. He called the region "the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda."
Of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that Obama plans to deploy, 5,000 will be dedicated to training Afghan security forces. A senior administration official said the goal for the Afghan army, for example, is to increase its ranks from 90,000 to 134,000 by the end of 2010.
All the U.S. troops are due to arrive by the end of May, moving up by about six months the expected deployment schedule. Most of the combat forces will be used in the south and east, where the Taliban is the strongest.
During the review, Obama asked for province-by-province assessments of the Taliban's strength, the effectiveness of provincial Afghan leaders and the overall security outlook to determine how quickly U.S. forces could leave certain regions.
Those calculations, likely to evolve as the conflict intensifies, will help determine the shape and timing of the eventual U.S. withdrawal.
At the same time, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is concerned that an abrupt U.S. departure will leave his country vulnerable to the Taliban, which the Pakistani army is fighting in the tribal areas. But many Pakistanis believe the U.S. role in the region is inflaming the war and weakening the government, something Obama sought to address in his speech.
"In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly," he said. "Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust."
Staff researcher Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.