Obama Outlines Afghan Strategy

President Obama outlined his strategy for Afghanistan Tuesday at a speech from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

We did not ask for this fight, but we must see it through. That message tonight from President Obama speaking before an audience of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The president outlined a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan in response, he said, to huge challenges that remain in the region, despite eight years of war.

President BARACK OBAMA: Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There's no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al-Qaida has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.

And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population. Our new commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has reported that the security situation is more serious than he anticipated. In short, the status quo is not sustainable.

NORRIS: To improve the situation on the ground, President Obama said he had ordered additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and that they would begin deploying early next year. But he also pledged in response to many critics in his own party that he would begin drawing down troops within 18 months. And to those critics who have argued that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan lacks clear focus, the president had this to say.

Pres. OBAMA: Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan: We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven, we must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny the ability to overthrow the government and we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan security forces and government so that they take can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

NORRIS: The president tried to speak to a number of different audiences and deliver several different messages to Americans who are concerned about a recession here at home and the mounting price tag of the war, he says, our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

To our allies in Pakistan, we are committed to a partnership, he said, to build on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust. To our allies in NATO who have been reluctant to commit additional troops to the war effort, more than your credibility is at stake. This is about world security. And to the Afghan people, the president delivered this promise.

Pres. OBAMA: We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandoned violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect. To isolate those who destroy, to strengthen those who build, to hasten the day when our troops will leave and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner and never your patron.

NORRIS: For more on the president's speech, we turn now to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, you were there in the hall at the U.S. Military Academy, what was the feeling like there inside the room?

MARA LIASSON: Well, Michele, it was very serious. The president was very serious and businesslike. The scene in the hall was really striking: rows upon rows, thousands of cadets in their uniforms, so you had this sea of grey. There was very little applause until the end. This was a serious speech, and he was talking to people who probably are going to be going to Afghanistan when they graduate.

NORRIS: And he said, he talked about what the nation owed them, what he owed them as a president. The president finished the speech in well under the expected 40 minutes. There was a certain briskness at the end of the speech. Then he slowed down and became more rhetorical. You heard some of the flourishes that we are used to hearing on the campaign trail and when he's really trying to sell something.

LIASSON: That's right. I think we're used to hearing these big, inspirational speeches. This was a speech about something that the president doesn't usually talk about. He's a war president now. And I don't think he thought he was going to be one. But he's making the biggest risk of his presidency. And I think his demeanor and the tone of his speech really reflected that.

I agree at the end he did talk about right makes right. Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. There was the rhetorical flourish, but for the most of this the rest of the speech it was a very businesslike laying out of his argument, why he made the decision, why we have to fight in Afghanistan. He addressed skeptics on both sides. He says that some of us would like to get out right now altogether. Others of us are willing to stay for 10 years.

He said at least he's found the balanced approach between those two polls. He's going to ramp up in Afghanistan as quickly as possible so the United States can get out. Create the situation on the ground, enough stability that, okay, they can be degraded to the point that the Afghan government can take over the fight itself. He wants to ramp up and accelerate the training of Afghan forces. All that is a question mark. Can it happen in the timeline that he envisions?

NORRIS: Eighteen months, not a lot of time. The president never mentioned the name of his predecessor George W. Bush. But it seemed that the former president was almost like a shadow presence in much of the speech, even though he was a target of the now sitting president during the campaign.

LIASSON: for everybody to get what he was talking about. He said, basically, you know, after 9/11 we had domestic unity and international legitimacy, but, in so many words, he said, then Bush took his eye off the ball and got distracted by Iraq.

You know, the president, when he was a candidate, said that Afghanistan was the frontline in the war on terror. It was the war of necessity, Iraq was the war of choice. Without using that exact formulation tonight, he made it pretty clear he still believes that.

NORRIS: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson speaking to us from West Point tonight. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

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