With narrower military goals, Obama ups the ante

"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 Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Six months after saying he doubted that "piling on more and more troops" was the road to success in Afghanistan, and then warning his commanders not to ask for more, President Obama has given Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal nearly all the troops that he wanted.

But in granting much of McChrystal's request, Obama has set narrower and more explicit objectives than the broad, Afghanistan-wide counterinsurgency his top military commander in the country had outlined, and given him a short timeline for achieving them.

In Tuesday's prime-time speech, the president asked international allies for tangible proof of the new closeness they have affirmed with his administration, reviving demands for help that both he and his predecessor had largely abandoned. He issued sharp warnings to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to embrace his strategy.

By upping the ante on all fronts, Obama is attempting to change the metabolism of a war that has sputtered along for more than eight years. His order to deploy 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by summer, and then start withdrawing them a year later, constitutes an acknowledgment that the situation is dire, and that both the resources and the patience for dealing with it are limited.

If the strategy is successful, control of Afghan provinces and districts will begin to be turned over to local officials as early as a year from now and insurgent sanctuaries in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region will be destroyed. If the strategy is a failure, it could come just as the 2012 election cycle gets underway.

On Tuesday night, Obama defined victory much the same way he did in March, when he announced his first "comprehensive" strategy for Afghanistan: denying al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan, defeating the terrorist group and dismantling it. Many of the rhetorical sound bites in the new plan sounded the same as they did in the old one: a reprise of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the rationale for the war, a warning that there would be no "blank check," a cautionary note that "none of this will be easy."

In broad terms, Obama's plan is reminiscent of President George W. Bush's "surge" strategy in Iraq -- standing up indigenous military forces so that U.S. troops can "stand down." What Bush officials called "breathing space" for local Iraqi governance and infrastructure to develop, Obama officials referred to Tuesday as a "window of opportunity" for the Afghans.

Not surprisingly, administration briefers sharply disputed any comparison. The difference, a senior Obama adviser said, is in the clear benchmarks and deadlines that have been set this time around.

Rather than acceding to McChrystal's request for an escalation of 40,000 troops over a year to 18 months, Obama has demanded a quick jolt of 30,000, with the first Marines scheduled to arrive early this winter and the remainder of still-undesignated Marine Corps and Army units to be in place by the end of the summer.

The strain the rapid deployment will put on the military is considerable, and it will bring the total number of U.S. troops to more than 100,000, more than double those in place at the beginning of the year. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has been given some minor wiggle room around the 30,000 cap, has assured Obama that it is doable.

The schedule will be helped by the ongoing withdrawal from Iraq, where U.S. troop strength is down to about 116,000 from its October 2007 peak of 166,000. McChrystal has been given a list of units that will be available and told to revise his recommendations along the lines of Obama's strategy. He will concentrate forces in population areas in Afghanistan's southern Pashtun belt, where the Taliban controls wide swaths of territory, and continue the withdrawal already begun from lightly populated and hard-to-defend outposts in the north and east.

Beyond training academies and mentoring, Afghan army and police units will find U.S. forces sleeping, eating and fighting with them at every turn. Some U.S. officials, notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), have called for the size of the Afghan army to be quadrupled. Obama has rejected such calls as unrealistic, and set a first-year target to expand the force from its current size of 90,000 personnel to about 134,000. The goal, administration officials said, is to improve quality as well as quantity.

Officials said the strategy also includes "aggressive targeting" of insurgents in the border areas, a nod to plans advocated by Vice President Biden to step up attacks by air assets and Special Forces units outside high population areas. Stressing a private warning he has sent to Pakistan, Obama said: "We . . . have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear."

The Afghanistan that Obama envisioned Tuesday evening was not the flourishing, modern democracy of which Bush often spoke. Obama did not talk about advancing "opportunity and justice," as he had described in March. Instead, he spoke of "objectives": "We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and . . . strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government."

The question Obama faced, a senior adviser said, was "how good is good enough . . . and the president came up with an answer for that." Doing more, he said, "is debatable at a think tank. It is not debatable in the real world."

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