For the first time in the war’s history, President Obama announced a date -- July 2011 -- when U.S. forces in Afghanistan will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan soldiers and policemen.
In a decision that may define his presidency, Barack Obama on Tuesday night announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by next summer in the hopes of bringing a deteriorating war in its ninth year to an acceptable conclusion, calling that goal vital to “the common security of the world.”
“We will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months,” Obama told Army cadets at the U.S. military academy at West Point, pledging to “refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests.” U.S. troop levels will rise to an all-time high of about 98,000.
[Security1]Obama recommitted to the ultimate goal, first set by his administration in March, of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in its Pakistani tribal safehaven and preventing either its return to Afghanistan or a takeover in Pakistan. But for the first time in the war’s history, Obama announced a date — July 2011 — when U.S. forces in Afghanistan will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan soldiers and policemen currently under American and allied tutelage, a step toward what he described as a long-term political and economic relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan after U.S. troops ultimately depart.
That date, Obama emphasized, heralds only the beginning of the end of the war: the pace of the handover and its ultimate conclusion will be determined not by a fixed timetable but “conditions on the ground,” according to the president, and it is unclear when or how rapidly substantial withdrawals of U.S. troops will occur after July 2011. That means the U.S. force total in Afghanistan will remain at approximately 98,000 for at least another year after all the new troops arrive in Afghanistan in summer 2010, and possibly longer. Senior administration officials have begun using the term “extended surge” to describe the troop increase — distinguishing it from the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which ended after the tours of additional brigades concluded in 2008; and also avoiding the politically troublesome term “escalation.”
The revamped strategy and new troop increase — the second Obama has ordered in the first year of his presidency — comes after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, issued a dire assessment in late August that time was running out to reverse gains that the Taliban-led insurgent syndicate has made over several years. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” McChrystal wrote. Obama’s new troop deployment, which administration officials said was occurring as rapidly as possible, will fully arrive in Afghanistan right at the tail end of McChystal’s prediction, raising questions about what remains achievable. McChrystal will arrive on Capitol Hill early next week to testify before Congress about the war.
After receiving McChrystal’s assessment and subsequent requests for additional forces, Obama convened a series of ten meetings with his national-security team, as well as consultations with foreign allies and outside experts. In his West Point speech, Obama substantially embraced McChrystal’s military focus on providing security for Afghan civilians. That approach, McChrystal argued and Obama endorsed, is meant to drain the insurgency’s base of support and to allow for governance and development assistance from the Afghan government, with the support of the international community, to arrive. Still, senior administration officials said on Tuesday that they anticipated another review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy by late 2010 to determine if the strategy is succeeding, or if another adjustment is necessary.
‘Immediate Impact’ on Afghan Lives
Senior administration officials elaborated that U.S. troops would primarily focus on southern or eastern Afghanistan — the heart of both Pashtun Afghanistan and the largely Pashtun insurgency on the porous border with the Pakistani tribal areas sheltering al-Qaeda’s senior leadership — while NATO partner nations, which currently contribute more than 30,000 troops, would bolster the north and west of Afghanistan, where security has recently deteriorated. On Friday in Brussels, NATO will hold a conference of allied foreign ministers that the administration expects to become a venue for securing several thousand new troops from partner nations.
Civilian aid to Afghanistan will be restructured, Obama indicated in the speech. In particular, the United States will emphasize agricultural development instead of big reconstruction projects to revitalize the nation’s agriculture-based economy, Obama said, to make an “immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”
A senior administration official explained that the adjustment was partially inspired after recent and relatively inexpensive U.S. military projects in Afghanistan to improve or repair irrigation canals proved “extremely popular” with the locals. Those “immediate impact” development projects would be expanded, the official said, and would benefit legal “agricultural output, as opposed to poppy,” which finances the insurgency and fuels Afghan governmental corruption.
Confronting that corruption was another major theme of the new strategy. President Hamid Karzai fell out of favor with the Obama administration owing to concerns about his government’s corruption and lack of competent performance. But Karzai was reelected this year, even after an Afghan electoral commission invalidated hundreds of thousands of his ballots as fradulent or tainted. Obama said that the U.S. had high expectations for the Afghan president, stressing the days of a “blank check” to Karzai were over, and portraying the timetable for handing over security to Afghans as a response to a call in Karzai’s recent inaugural address for additional responsibility.
“Going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance,” Obama said. “We will support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”
Yet at the same time, administration officials said that in addition to working with the Karzai government, it would aim its military and development assistance down to Afghanistan’s provinces and districts, where Karzai’s influence is relatively tenuous. That was one of the rationales for setting the July 2011 date for beginning the transfer of authority, something administration officials referred to as a “strategic inflection point.” One explained that the date would put pressure on all parties — the U.S., NATO, the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces, and the international community — to “do more sooner.”
Additionally, administration officials and NATO allies are in discussion to determine if a mechanism can be created to bring greater coherence to the efforts of Afghan, U.S., allied and other civilian assistance to the Afghan people for development and governance — a sort of civilian counterpart to McChrystal’s command of all U.S. and NATO forces. The idea is not new, but the Obama administration has given it renewed emphasis, said a senior European diplomat, although the precise structure of that mechanism has yet to be determined. “This has been discussed entirely within the context of the strategic theme of turning responsibility over to the Afghans,” the diplomat said.
Security for Civilians: Counterinsurgency Redux
But the administration still believes that the most important thing it must do in 2010 is provide security for the Afghan civilian population. One senior administration official said that Afghan interlocutors were telling Obama’s team, “Give us security and the rest will come.”
How that security will be achieved went largely unexplained in Obama’s speech, but has been spelled out extensively by McChrystal. McChrystal has called the attitudes of Afghan civilians “strategically decisive” in the war, and as such he has ended offensive U.S. and NATO airstrikes, which caused extensive civilian casualties; prevented U.S. troops from returning fire into areas with dense civilian populations; and even changed the rules for U.S. convoy movements to make Afghan roads more accessible to Afghan civilians. Administration officials explained that U.S. troops would primarily operate by securing key population-heavy areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan, but would also use select force to disrupt the Taliban outside of those areas and prevent al-Qaeda from moving into them — something strongly advocated by current and former leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command who remain close allies of McChrystal.
In a statement released by McChrystal shortly before the speech, the general praised the strategy review and said that he now had the necessary resources to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. “The Afghanistan-Pakistan review led by the President has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task,” McChrystal said. “The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the President’s address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security.”
Unanswered Questions Remain
But administration officials were vague as to why they were certain a total of 98,000 U.S. troops and the 900 U.S. civilian advisers — who will be in Afghanistan by January — would turn the tide. Key Obama advisers believe the trouble with the Afghanistan war has been persistent under-resourcing.**
Nor have they predicted with confidence when Afghan soldiers and policemen will be prepared to take over the country. Administration officials said that they would annually revisit target goals of Afghan security forces’ development, taking into account overall performance, recruitment and retention. One senior official said the U.S. was not interested in setting an “arbitrary end strength number at this time,” tamping down speculation that the administration sought to reach a goal of 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police in the next few years. And finally, it remains unclear if U.S. forces will ultimately withdraw from Afghanistan while some safe haven exists for al-Qaeda in Pakistan. **
Keeping congressional support for a controversial war now certain to last past the 2010 midterm elections, and most likely Obama’s first term in office, will be “a challenge” for the administration, said Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn.), a retired Navy admiral who is running for a seat in the Senate next year and who supports the troop increases. The war is unpopular, particularly within Democratic and progressive circles, constituencies the Democrats in Congress need to retain their majorities. Traditional Obama allies like the netroots giant MoveOn and the progressive veterans group VoteVets announced opposition to the strategy on Tuesday. And a just-released estimate by Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, claims that Obama’s “extended surge” will “increase costs by approximately $30 billion per year,” and speculated that a supplemental appropriation — something the administration has pledged not to seek — may be necessary in fiscal 2010.
Still, Sestak believed that Obama could retain congressional and national support. “People believe in him,” the congressman said, adding that Obama’s “non-political” approach to decisionmaking in the war would earn him popular support.
Obama’s weeks of deliberation on Afghanistan have come under significant conservative criticism. Although Dick Cheney, the former vice president, presided in part over the deterioration of the Afghanistan war before handing it off to Obama, he has said Obama was “dithering” on the war and described the administration as weak. Undeterred, the administration has said the result of the process would be a clear strategy and stronger national consensus. And senior officials said that the administration would launch another overall review of the strategy in late 2010, even ahead of the “strategic inflection point” on July 2011.
‘A Time Of Great Trial’**
“I do not make this decision lightly,” Obama told the cadets. “I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.” Yet he declined to say, as he did over the summer, that Afghanistan was a “necessary war,” preferring to say that “our cause is just.”
Obama said that while this was a “time of great trial,” he was confident that “our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.”
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