President Obama with cadets after speaking about his Afghanistan policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
President Obama with cadets after speaking about his Afghanistan policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Julie Jacobson/AP
President Obama assumed full political ownership of the conflict in Afghanistan with his announcement Tuesday night of a significant strategic escalation, including the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.
But even as he worked to persuade the American people to support new deployments, he tried to counterbalance that move by setting the first deadline toward an eventual exit, pledging to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
The entire speech was a similar kind of balancing act, as Obama sought to convince Americans that the Afghan conflict was still winnable more than eight years after U.S. troops entered Kabul. Polls show Americans are divided over the troop increase and increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for a military victory in Afghanistan.
In his prime-time speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the president raised the specter of Vietnam, only to argue that this conflict was completely different. Obama pointedly criticized the Bush administration for neglecting Afghanistan even as he took a page from its Iraq playbook in designing a surge strategy.
But first, he sought to remind Americans why the war is still worth fighting.
"I do not make this decision lightly," Obama said. "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-Qaida. 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."
Obama was frank in acknowledging the cost of the war, noting that the U.S. spent nearly $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration, and that his new plan will cost the military an additional estimated $30 billion. The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the invasion in late 2001, the U.S. has spent close to $227 billion.
But he was also forced to acknowledge that the painful recession and intensified partisan squabbling in Washington have made it a politically difficult time to make an increased military commitment to Afghanistan.
"It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united — bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear," Obama said. "I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again."
The extra 30,000 troops Obama is deploying, which are due in Afghanistan by next summer, will take the total number of U.S. forces to nearly 100,000, along with an additional 39,000 NATO and international forces.
"Taken together, these additional American and international troops 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," Obama said.
A cadet reads highly topical material while waiting for President Obama to speak on his policy for Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
A cadet reads highly topical material while waiting for President Obama to speak on his policy for Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Julie Jacobson/AP
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," he said.
Aides stress that the pace and eventual end date of that departure remain undetermined.
By setting a start date for withdrawal, Obama said he was trying to create added momentum for building up the capacity of the Afghan government and its security forces.
"The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," Obama said. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
The influx of troops has three main aims: to reverse the Taliban's momentum, to secure major towns and cities, and to train Afghan forces as quickly as possible. The additional troops will include at least two combat brigades, as well as a large contingent of soldiers dedicated to training Afghan security forces.
In one key change, the president is ordering all U.S. forces in Afghanistan to partner full-time with the Afghan army and police to help them with training. The aim is to jump-start the transfer of responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the Afghan government, officials say.
The deployment of 30,000 more troops is fewer than the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recommended in a confidential report to Obama in September.
Pentagon sources told NPR that Obama has asked NATO members to contribute an additional 5,000 troops. In his speech, Obama included a clear message to NATO allies that he expected them to offer more assistance.
"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan," Obama said. "Now, we must come together to end this war successfully."
Obama also directed a message to the Afghan government, which has seen its credibility severely eroded by the controversy over a blatantly rigged presidential election.
"The days of providing a blank check are over," he 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."
The message for neighboring Pakistan was more subtle.
Obama made an oblique reference to elements in Pakistan's intelligence and military sectors that have supported insurgents, including Taliban fighters. But he praised Pakistan for its recent offensives against militants and pledged a deeper partnership.
The broad strategic overhaul is the result of a three-month White House policy review that was prompted by sharply rising violence amid a Taliban resurgence and the flawed presidential election. It also followed Obama's decision in February to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan during his first strategic review.
Republicans had accused the president of "dithering" on his decision-making, but Obama issued a strong defense of his through review, which involved 10 high-level war council sessions and drew upon more than two dozen specialized reports by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010," he said, "so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war."
Ben Taylor (left), a Navy corpsman, and Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Sands during a training mission near Forward Operating Base Lagman in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan.
He also made a pointed reference to the Iraq war, noting that the Bush administration's decision to invade Baghdad diverted key resources from the Afghan conflict.
"When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war," Obama said. "Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive."
By the time Obama took office, the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated dramatically. But things got even worse as the year wore on, with violence reaching record levels.
During the first eight months of 2009, there were nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks — more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data.
Obama's new strategy shifts the focus of the U.S. military away from simply pursuing Taliban extremists into the most remote corners of the country. Instead, U.S. and NATO soldiers will spend more time guarding the more heavily populated towns and cities to better protect the Afghan people and try to build zones of stability.
The strategic overhaul will also focus on new civilian initiatives, including the deployment of additional civilian experts to Afghanistan. The Obama administration is setting agriculture as its top development priority there.
More broadly, Obama was trying to demonstrate that the U.S. is working toward a broad exit strategy without sparking fear in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere that Washington is planning a precipitous withdrawal.
"This is not an open-ended commitment on behalf of the president," says a senior administration official.
Obama also acknowledged the high cost of the war, particularly as the country is just coming out of a painful recession.
"That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own," he said.