Inter Press Service
In a highly anticipated speech Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama announced the dispatch of 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next seven months and said he would begin drawing down the U.S. military presence there 12 months later.
Speaking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he said the pace of Washington's withdrawal will depend on "conditions on the ground" but insisted that Washington's military commitment to the country will not be "open-ended".
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," he 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," he declared.
He said that Washington's goal in the region remains same as it was since he first announced an escalation in U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan last March: "To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
And he stressed that Pakistan, to which he said Washington is "committed to a partnership... that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," is looming ever-larger in his administration's strategic calculations.
"The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered," he said. "And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them."
"So no, I do not make this decision lightly" he said of adding 30,000 more U.S. troops to the nearly 70,000 already deployed to Afghanistan. "I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicentre of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," he said.
The speech, which caps a review of nearly three months, immediately spurred critical reactions from both Republicans and some Democrats.
Pundits and Republicans wasted little time in attacking Obama's decision to begin troop withdrawals in 18 months.
"I think every American is disappointed that eight years into this thing we need to send more troops but I support the president's decision to send 30,000 more troops," Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on CNN.
"The one concern I had is what does this mean about July 2011? How will the enemy perceive that? How will the Afghan people perceive what we're going to do? It's not realistic that we can withdraw a lot of troops in 18 months if your goal is to train the Afghan army and police force," Graham continued.
Republicans have been calling for Obama to accept the recommendations of his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to send at least 40,000 more troops as part of a multi-year commitment since it was first leaked to the press in September.
"The way you win wars is to break the enemy's will," Republican Senator John McCain, and Obama's opponent in the presidential election, told reporters earlier today. "The exit strategy should be dictated by conditions on the ground."
Some Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Obama risks drawing the U.S. ever deeper into a Vietnam-like quagmire that the country and its soaring federal deficit and decaying infrastructure can ill afford. Obama himself noted that the addition of the 30,000 troops will cost the treasury some 30 billion dollars.
"I do not support the president's decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest. It's an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy," Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said in a statement responding to the speech.
"Sending more troops could further destabilize Afghanistan and, more importantly, Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state where al Qaeda is headquartered. While I appreciate that the president made clear we won't be in Afghanistan forever, I am disappointed by his decision not to offer a timetable for ending our military presence there," he concluded.
Obama tried to rebut such complaints in his speech. He strongly rejected the Vietnam analogy, insisting that, unlike that war, Washington leads a coalition of 43 nations and is not facing a "broad-based popular insurgency".
"To abandon this area now – and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance – would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland," he said.
As for those who have argued for maintaining current troops levels, he insisted that "the status quo is not sustainable" due to continuing gains by the Taliban.
As to Republican objections that he failed to follow McChrystal's recommendations for a greater and more open-ended escalation, Obama was dismissive. "I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests," he said.
Obama, who has been consulting intensively to with other NATO leaders over the past several days, stressed that he expected them to also contribute more troops, although he did not say how many. Administration officials said they hoped to obtain additional pledges of more than 5,000 troops at NATO's ministerial conference in Brussels at the end of the week.
Besides the U.S., NATO and other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) currently have about 40,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, he said, Washington will pursue a strategy designed to "reverse the Taliban's momentum" and strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces to prepare them for the transition after July 2011. The additional troops will be used both to "target the insurgency and secure key population centres", as well as train the Afghan army and police.
At the same time, he said Washington will pursue a "more effective civilian strategy" by supporting government ministries, governors, and local leaders that "combat corruption and deliver for the people".
"The days of providing a blank cheque are over," he said.
"[S]uccess in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan," he noted, adding, "We will strengthen's Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."
U.S. officials have been increasingly public about their concerns that the Pakistani military, the country's most powerful national institution, has provided safe haven for leaders of the Afghan Taliban – even as it takes on the Pakistani Taliban in the border regions - as well as other violent Islamist groups responsible for terrorist acts against India.
Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton write for the Inter Press Service and are contributors to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).