Examining Obama'S Plans For Afghanistan

President Obama is gearing up to address the nation Tuesday on how the United States and its allies will proceed in Afghanistan. Michele Norris was among a group of journalists invited to the White House to gain some insight on what Obama will say. She talks to Melissa Block about what she learned.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

The Obama administration has spent months deliberating the next steps to take in the war in Afghanistan. President Obama has now decided on those steps. Tonight, he will announce what they are in a national address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And Michele, you were at the White House today for a preview of that speech from senior administration officials. We've been reporting on the program that the president will talk not just about numbers, but also about strategy. What did you hear?

NORRIS: And, Melissa, we got a chance to hear about some of that strategy today. We know that the president will be talking about 30,000 more troops to be deployed immediately, a drawdown of U.S. forces beginning sometime around July of 2011 that the U.S. plans to work more aggressively to partner with Afghan and to help Afghan shore up its security forces. Were going to hear the president talk a bit again as he did throughout the campaign about disrupting, dismantling, defeating al-Qaida.

But they seemed to really like, Melissa, these alliterative catch phrases because he's also likely to talk about this three part goal of targeting, training and the transfer of power, thats targeting al-Qaida, training the Afghan security forces and then transferring the primary responsibility for security to the Afghan government by July of 2011 or 18 months.

BLOCK: Now, the training part of that equation, what is the strategy, as far as you can tell, for training Afghan forces to do what they havent been able to do up till now to take on al-Qaida on their own.

NORRIS: Well, they plan to really draw upon the experience of Stanley McChrystal, General McChrystal and General Petraeus who, as you know, spent quite a bit of time training forces in Iraq and they planned to learn the lessons from there. And they need to get the Afghan army up to speed. There's about a 92,000 member of Afghan national army that is capable at this point, but they're going to need much bigger numbers, probably four times that number and they're going to move away from a garrison army to a force that can fight a war and a war that clearly has several fronts.

They say that they're going to have a much harder time dealing or trying to shore up Afghan police forces. There's about a three-quarter one-quarter split they hope to eventually get to. And they've had real problems with the Afghan police forces because the corruption and retention and other issues. And the White house knows that if they want to have a much more muscular security force outside at the major population center, they're really going to have to do that.

BLOCK: Also, Michele, there have been huge questions about the reliability of their partner and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. How much confidence does the White House have in his future going forward and his leadership?

NORRIS: We heard about a series of very stern conversations that President Obama has had with Hamid Karzai after the election. And then again just today, one of the big questions is what is plan B? You know, if they're not able to -if in July of 2011 we start this drawdown and Hamid Karzai has not done a good enough job in eradicating corruption and building a stronger security force. What happens at that point? And that's something that we didnt hear much of today in that White House briefing. And we wonder how much we're actually going to hear from the president on that score.

And the one question is: What if al-Qaida just watches and waits? Just draws down its own forces and waits for the U.S. to start this withdrawal. And what the White House says is that still achieves their short-term goal because what they're trying to do is blunt al-Qaidas strength right now in Afghanistan and also in neighboring Pakistan. And they're hoping that if the security forces are ramped up, if they're much stronger, 18 months from now, theyll be able to take on the al-Qaida forces if they did come out from the mountains or out from the provinces in Northern Pakistan.

BLOCK: You mentioned Pakistan there and that is another key question here of the role that Pakistan will play, what their impact will be on defeating al-Qaida. How does that factor into the strategy that the president will be talking about tonight?

NORRIS: You know, this has been billed as a rollout of Afghanistan strategy. In many ways, this is an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. You hear them talk about the Af-Pak strategy. The president has been involved in some very muscular diplomacy with Ali Zardari and trying to get him to really step up in dealing with al-Qaida in that country. And Pakistan, they have seemed to have taken this view that there is the threat that al-Qaida poses in the neighboring country and there's a threat that al-Qaida poses in its own country. And they sort of take on their own interests.

And the White House is trying to make sure that they take a much more broader view, and they note that if they're truly going to defeat al-Qaida, that will happen in Pakistan because thats where the leadership is, thats where the money is and thats where the recruiting is happening.

BLOCK: Okay, Michele, thanks. And well have coverage on most NPR stations -many NPR stations tonight of the presidents address starting at 8 p.m. Eastern.

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Officials: 30,000 More Troops To Afghanistan

W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan. i i

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

President Obama will announce plans to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan when he gives a nationally televised address Tuesday night, administration officials told NPR.

The president also is expected to lay out a rough time frame for the commitment of troops in the address, and is expected to outline their role: to secure population centers in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The increase will bring the total of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to more than 100,000.

Pentagon sources told NPR that Obama also has asked NATO member nations to contribute 5,000 more troops to the international force in Afghanistan.

After an exhaustive three-month strategic review, Obama will launch his second significant strategic escalation of the U.S. military's involvement in Afghanistan with Tuesday night's address.

A lengthy set of deliberations that included 10 high-level war council meetings has led to the speech, to be given at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

More broadly, Obama will be trying to convince a skeptical American public that the United States still has the time — and the capability — to reverse the deterioration in Afghanistan.

He presented his planned overhaul to his top advisers on Sunday and to close foreign allies on Monday. The White House portrayed the president's decision-making process as a rigorous and exhaustive effort to gear U.S. strategy more firmly toward the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The prime-time speech is a pivotal moment for the Obama White House, which needs to find some way to reverse a broad set of downward trends in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Obama conducted many of his formal policy sessions in the White House Situation Room, speaking with generals in Kabul by secure videoconference. But the debate also played out in public through a constant stream of leaks, speculation and partisan sniping.

Obama's critics, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, decried him for "dithering" and showing weakness.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Estimates vary on the cost of the war to taxpayers. The Congressional Research Service says it totals $227 billion so far.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Perhaps a bigger factor in any delay was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where record levels of violence and a disputed election that threatened the legitimacy of the Afghan government punctuated the debate in Washington.

Either way, the origins of Obama's West Point speech stretch back much further than the launch of this latest strategic review in September.

The course was set as far back as April 2007, two months after then-Sen. Obama formally declared that he was running for president. The candidate told a Chicago audience that the U.S. had been distracted by Iraq and needed to focus more attention on Afghanistan, "where more American forces are needed to battle al-Qaida, track down Osama bin Laden and stop that country from backsliding toward instability."

It was a theme Obama would repeat throughout his campaign — an emphasis on Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, as the war America should be fighting to combat global terrorism.

By the final months of the Bush administration, security in Afghanistan had begun to deteriorate rapidly. In July 2008, the number of daily insurgent attacks in Afghanistan surpassed the number in Iraq for the first time.

President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room. i i

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war. Pete Souza/AP/The White House hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room.

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war.

Pete Souza/AP/The White House

And by the time Obama was sworn in as president, the security situation was even worse. Obama immediately launched his first strategic review, a 60-day effort headed by Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official who had been one of his campaign advisers.

Not waiting for the results of that review, Obama in February announced the deployment of 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, for a total U.S. presence of 68,000 — where the force level now stands. The president said the bigger force was "necessary to stabilize the situation" in advance of Afghanistan's August presidential election.

As the White House was spending most of its time dealing with the global financial crisis and deepening recession, Obama announced the results of that first review in March. His new strategy called for additional resources for the Afghan effort, a more vigorous civilian effort to rebuild the country and a more concerted effort to train Afghan soldiers.

"We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country," Obama said. "That's how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our own troops home."

But less than two months later, with attacks still skyrocketing ahead of the August presidential election, Obama replaced his top general in Afghanistan. His new pick, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was chosen in large part for his expertise in counterinsurgency.

As the new U.S. commander, McChrystal was given time to conduct his own strategic assessment. The confidential report, dated Aug. 30, was a damning indictment of the current U.S. and NATO strategy, as well as the capability of the Afghan government.

Opinion: Is President Obama Getting It Right?

"The threat has grown steadily but subtly, and unchecked by commensurate counter-action, its severity now surpasses the capabilities of the current strategy," McChrystal wrote. "We cannot succeed simply by trying harder."

By this point, there had been nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks during the first eight months of 2009 in Afghanistan, which was more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data.

Separately, McChrystal presented Obama with several options for boosting U.S. troop levels, endorsing a plan that called for deploying some 40,000 additional soldiers.

Another key part of the general's recommendation was to boost the U.S. military's partnership with Afghan security forces and the Afghan government.

But even as the White House formally launched its second strategic review to address McChrystal's recommendations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was engulfed in a controversy over the alleged rigging of the August election.

The ballot-tampering was so blatant and widespread that it threatened to discredit the Kabul government completely.

The dispute dragged on until Karzai eventually agreed to a runoff election after being pressured by U.S. and Western diplomats. His rival, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out before the vote.

Karzai was finally sworn in for his second term late last month, but his inauguration did little to dispel the deep doubts about his government's ability to tackle corruption and incompetence.

As Obama prepares his speech on Tuesday night, one of his many challenges will be to explain how the United States will plausibly be able to hand over more and more responsibility for Afghanistan's security to Karzai's partially discredited government.

Obama also wants 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 an imminent withdrawal.

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