Obama Seeks Delicate Balance Between Two Wars President Obama ordered strategy reviews to help chart the way forward in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But changeable military and political conditions in the countries threaten Obama's strategy to shift emphasis from the war in Iraq and instead "finish the job" in Afghanistan.
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Obama Seeks Delicate Balance Between Two Wars

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Obama Seeks Delicate Balance Between Two Wars

Obama Seeks Delicate Balance Between Two Wars

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Wednesday will be President Obama's 100th day in office. So we're taking time all this week to look back at some of his key campaign promises and how he's delivered on them so far. Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's NPR's defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: From his first days on the campaign trail, Barack Obama hammered home this message, that he had opposed invading Iraq in the first place and that U.S. troops should come home as soon as possible. By last July, after months of crisscrossing the country and hundreds of stump speeches, Mr. Obama had polished his promise.

President BARACK OBAMA: I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office, ending this war.

KELLY: And he gave himself a deadline.

Pres. OBAMA: We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months.

KELLY: In 16 months. There was a reason for that urgency. Mr. Obama promised over and over at campaign rallies that he would stop one war in Iraq so he could turn to the other.

Pres. OBAMA: We will bring this war to an end. We will focus attention on Afghanistan.

KELLY: While running for president, Mr. Obama did not lay out a precise plan or a timetable for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but he made this line a central plank in his foreign policy platform.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: We're going to finish the job in Afghanistan.

KELLY: Fast forward now to this January 21st, the new president's first full day in office. Mr. Obama called his top military advisers to the White House, and he ordered strategy reviews to help chart the way ahead in both wars. By February, President Obama had settled on a plan for Iraq, and he flew to Camp LeJeune in North Carolina to announce a deadline.

Pres. OBAMA: Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

KELLY: The end of August 2010 is 19 months after he took office, not the promised 16. The president also said all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011. If he's able to stick to that timetable, Mr. Obama will likely be seen to have honored the spirit, if not the letter, of his campaign pledges. But that's a big if, as we'll get to in a moment.

In Afghanistan, the president faces, if anything, a bigger challenge. He promised, as we heard, to finish the job there. But questions grew about what the job in Afghanistan was or what it would mean to finish it. In response, Mr. Obama has announced a new strategy for the region, one that he says has a clear and focused goal.

Pres. OBAMA: To disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

KELLY: The new strategy includes more troops, more aid money, more civilian experts. Then, there's the challenge of measuring whether the plan is working. Members of Congress, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine, have criticized the lack of benchmarks so far.

Representative SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): How will we assess whether the new strategy is working? How will we know if we're winning?

KELLY: The Pentagon says a list of benchmarks is coming, probably within the next week or so. But success in Afghanistan hinges, at least in part, on being able to withdraw troops and equipment from Iraq and shift them to the battlefield in Afghanistan.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations): The biggest strategic issue before the United States in all of this right now is the relationship between Iraq and Afghanistan.

KELLY: That's Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. Biddle says there's a real danger if President Obama, in order to turn to Afghanistan, moves too quickly to fulfill his promise to end the war in Iraq.

Mr. BIDDLE: If Iraq returns to violence, it's probably not a recoverable situation right now. We're not going to do a second surge. If we drawdown in Iraq too fast and violence returns, it is probably irremediable.

KELLY: Biddle's concern would seem to be supported by a recent uptick in suicide bombings in Iraq. Indeed, some of the president's own military advisers have questioned whether U.S. troops will be able to leave by the deadlines Mr. Obama wants to meet. As he works to hit those deadlines while pouring more troops into Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is learning firsthand the challenges of fighting two wars at once as he completes this transition from campaigning to governing.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.


Tomorrow, our series continues on MORNING EDITION. NPR's Jackie Northam looks at how President Obama is working to improve America's image in the world.

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