THE OBAMA DECISION – 30,000 ADDITIONAL U.S. TROOPS TO FIGHT AFGHAN ‘AL QAEDA CANCER’

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President Obama told the American people that 30,000 additional troops
will be sent to Afghanistan by the first part of 2010.

BY DAVID STOUT
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Tuesday night that he will begin to draw American forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011, even after sending some 30,000 more United States troops there by mid-2010 because “it is in our vital national interest” to reverse the momentum of Taliban insurgents.

“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards,” the president said in his address. “The status quo is not sustainable,” he said, blaming some of the problems on the war in Iraq, which he said had sapped America’s resources for several years.

In what he and his aides view as a critical moment in his presidency, Mr. Obama told the American people that 30,000 additional troops will be sent to Afghanistan by the first part of 2010, “the fastest pace possible,” with the mission of going after the insurgents and securing key population centers.

“They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight,” Mr. Obama said at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., a setting chosen for its history and because some of the cadets in the audience will go to Afghanistan. “And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”

“We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven,” Mr. Obama said. “We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

To those who might be tempted to end American involvement in that remote region, Mr. Obama said Afghanistan and Pakistan together are the “epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda, whose brand of terrorism he likened to cancer.

“We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through the country,” he said. “But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.”

The president’s speech, eight years after the United States began the campaign to topple the Taliban government, had several purposes: to persuade the American people and their lawmakers that the Afghan campaign is necessary; to convince American allies that their help is obligatory and necessary, and to spell out a scenario calling for a short-term troop increase followed quickly by the beginning of a withdrawal.

“We did not ask for this fight,” the president said, alluding to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were spawned by terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan, with the Taliban as their hosts. Nor, he said, is the campaign in Afghanistan, backed by more than 40 other nations, like that in Vietnam.

In bringing the total American force to nearly 100,000 troops by the end of May, the administration will move far faster than it had originally planned. Until recently, discussions focused on a deployment that would take a year, but Mr. Obama concluded that the situation required “more, sooner,” as one official said beforehand, explaining some of the central conclusions Mr. Obama reached at the end of a nearly three-month review of American war strategy.

In appealing to America’s allies, the president portrayed the mission in Afghanistan as one necessary not just for the United States but for every nation that desires peace. Nor will the present Kabul government, often accused of corruption and inefficiency, be given unconditional support, he promised.

“This effort must be based on performance,” he said, discussing what he expects from the Afghan people. “The days of providing a blank check are over.”

The additional military forces from the United States and other countries “will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011,” Mr. Obama said.

“Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,” the president said. “We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. 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.”

The strategy aims to prevent Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, whose territory it used to prepare the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and to keep Taliban insurgents from toppling the government there. The 30,000 new American troops will focus on securing several population centers in Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, including Kandahar in the south and Khost in the east, the officials said. The American forces, they said, will pair up with specific Afghan units in an effort to end eight years of frustrating attempts to build them into an independent fighting force.

Hours before the speech, Senator John McCain of Arizona expressed support for sending more troops to Afghanistan but said he opposed a timetable. “Dates for withdrawal are dictated by conditions,” Mr. McCain, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving.”

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, offered a more positive view after meeting with the president before his speech. “It is clear that the President’s deliberative approach to his decision, which allowed him to hear from a wide range of military, civilian and Congressional voices, will strengthen the clarity and focus of our mission,” Mr. Reid said. President Obama is trying to avoid what would be a political nightmare: being forced to concentrate on a faraway and increasingly unpopular war while trying to marshal support for his domestic goals, notably an overhaul of the health care system.

Mr. Obama has concluded that the strategy for dealing with the Taliban should be to “degrade its ability,” in the words of one official deeply involved in the discussions, so that the Afghan forces are capable of taking them on. At the same time the president’s strategy calls for “carving away at the bottom” of the Taliban’s force structure by reintegrating less committed members into tribes and offering them paid jobs in local and national military forces.

“We want to knock the Taliban back, giving us time and space to build the Afghans up mainly in the security front but also in governance and development as well,” said one senior administration official.

Before flying to West Point, Mr. Obama and his top advisers spent much of the past 24 hours briefing allies and Congressional leaders. The president called President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at 10 p.m. Monday and spent an hour discussing the new strategy, then called President Zardari of Pakistan at 10:35 a.m. Tuesday, officials said. Mr. Obama also talked with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland, both of whom have forces in Afghanistan.

The White House issued a statement praising Pakistan as it announced Mr. Obama’s call with Mr. Zardari. “The president recognized the profound sacrifices Pakistan has made in its efforts to combat extremists in its northwest and emphasized that our goal is to defeat Al Qaeda and to ensure stability in the region,” it said.

While the number of troops Mr. Obama is deploying falls short of the figure sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, his commander in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is also counting on reinforcements from American allies, as the speech excerpts make clear. Those allies currently have nearly 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, but European and Canadian officials have said they doubt Mr. Obama will get more than a few thousand more.

The new strategy draws heavily on lessons learned from President George W. Bush’s “surge” and strategy shift in Iraq in 2007, which Mr. Obama opposed as a senator and presidential candidate. Mr. Obama’s advisers are even referring to his troop buildup as an “extended surge.”

A critical part of Mr. Obama’s strategy is to succeed in an area where Mr. Bush failed: Training a reliable Afghan force, not only the national army but a series of local forces as well. Currently, the Afghan army is in the lead in only one of 34 provinces in the country, around the capital of Kabul.

In addition to the influx of troops, administration officials said they are taking other lessons from the Iraq surge, such as empowering local security forces to stand up to Taliban militants in their communities and enhancing the training of national forces by embedding American troops with Afghan counterparts and later pairing similarly sized American and Afghan units to fight side by side.

“We learned a lot of lessons, painful lessons, out of Iraq on how to do training,” said one official involved in the discussions.

The central mission of the new strategy is the same as that described by the White House after its last review in March — to focus on destroying Al Qaeda, the group that mounted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that still appears to have the reach to attack the United States. But regarding the Taliban, the administration’s latest review concluded that it needed only to degrade the capability of its various groups, some of which have close ties with Al Qaeda, on the assumption that they are indigenous and cannot be wiped out entirely.

Mr. Obama has sought to narrow America’s mission. There will be no talk of turning Afghanistan into a democracy — one of Mr. Bush’s central goals — and no discussion of “nation-building,” the officials said. But as they described it, some rudimentary nation-building is part of the plan, including helping the central government improve governance and curb corruption.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Landler from Washington; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and John F. Burns from London.

See Related: WORLD POLITICS

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