Obama Unveils Timetable In Afghan War Strategy

President Obama has ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but he's promising that U.S. soldiers will begin coming home in 18 months. In a prime time speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the president said his policy can reverse the Taliban's momentum, train the Afghan military to take over and bring the U.S. mission to a successful conclusion.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

On this morning after President Obama laid out his plans for Afghanistan, we are hearing many voices about the war. Renee Montagne has been a regular visitor to Afghanistan. Renee, Good morning.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Good morning. The president offered a new commitment to Afghanistan. He also signaled that commitment will not last forever. He said another 30,000 troops will be there in 2010, and he says they will start coming home in 2011. The president wants an intense effort to reverse the momentum of Afghan insurgents and also train Afghanistan's own forces to take over the fight. He spoke at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. NPR'S Mara Liasson was there.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama stood at a lectern before thousands of grey uniformed cadets. They listened intently as their commander-in-chief described his plan to escalate a war that many of them will end up fighting. Mr. Obama said that he had determined that it was in the country's vital national interest to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total of American forces there to about 100,000.

President BARACK OBAMA: I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of 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.

LIASSON: The president gave his generals most of what they asked for, but he also promised the country that he was ramping up the war quickly in order to withdraw as soon as possible.

Pres. OBAMA: The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010, the fastest possible pace, so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They'll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces and to partner with them, so that more Afghans can get into the fight.

LIASSON: The envisioned turnover to the Afghans is one of the biggest question marks of the president's strategy. Right now, the rate of attrition among the Afghan security forces is higher than the rate of recruitment, but the president defended his decision to set a date for the beginning of a draw down in July 2011.

Pres. OBAMA: There are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for a transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.

LIASSON: The president has defined a rather low threshold of winning in Afghanistan. He says there will be no nation building, just an attempt to degrade al-Qaida to the point that a beefed-up Afghan security force and a more effective Afghan government could defeat it themselves. And the president spoke directly to those Americans who are concerned about the cost, $30 billion a year, about $1 million dollars per soldier, at a time of economic hardship at home.

Pres. OBAMA: That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open ended, because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.

LIASSON: The president didn't say exactly how he would pay for the war, only that he'd work with Congress to address the costs. And he looked back to an earlier time when the conflict in Afghanistan was not a source of division, but of domestic unity and international legitimacy.

Pres. OBAMA: It's 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. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.

Pres. OBAMA: I believe´┐Ż

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I believe with every fiber of my being that we as Americans can still come together behind a common purpose. For our values are not simply words written in the parchment. They are a creed that calls us together, and that it's carried us through the darkest of storms as one nation, as one people.

LIASSON: It was a rare rhetorical flourish in an otherwise somber and business-like speech. Mr. Obama has now made the most momentous decision of his presidency to date, and the riskiest. Polls show the public is tired of the war, and many in his own party and Congress oppose sending more troops. But now, with his new surge in Afghanistan, President Obama has doubled down on a war he argues is still one of necessity, not choice.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, with the president at West Point.

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