West Point, New York: US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he is ordering 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan by next summer to counter a resurgent Taliban and plans to begin a troop withdrawal in 18 months.
The goal, Obama said in a prime-time televised address, is to speed the battle against Taliban insurgents, secure key population centers and train Afghan security forces so they can take over and clear the way for a US exit.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, called Obama’s approach “shock therapy for Afghanistan.”
“It is a bold approach and there is no guarantee of success,” he said. “Wars tend to consume presidencies and this is now Obama’s war.”
The accelerated timetable that Obama unveiled, after a three-month strategy review, surprised some Pentagon planners who had expected a 12- to 18-month period for deploying forces to bolster the 68,000 US troops already in the war zone.
“As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” Obama said.
His exit strategy appeared to be an attempt not only to sell his shift in strategy to war-weary Americans but also to put pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption in his government.
Under his 2011 timeframe, US troops would begin returning home before Obama’s expected re-election bid in 2012.
US allies France and Canada welcomed Obama’s speech but some Afghans expressed disappointment.
“President Obama is very far away from the reality and truth in Afghanistan,” said parliamentarian Shukriya Barakzai. “His strategy was to pay lip service and did not focus on civilians, nation-building, democracy and human rights.”
Kabul resident Sayeed Sharif said: “I don’t think the increase of military force will be helpful for the people of Afghanistan.”
‘Blank check’ days are over
In a 34-minute address, Obama recalled the spirit of unity among Americans after the 11 September attacks on the United States by al Qaeda in 2001 and warned that the militants were plotting fresh attacks.
“I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he told cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Republicans zeroed in on Obama’s vow that some troops will start coming home in 2011, saying it sent the wrong signal.
“A withdrawal date only emboldens al Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight,” senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Reuters.
Obama defended his decision and promised any pullout would be done responsibly.
“The absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government,” he said.
Obama’s review was slowed by uncertainty that surrounded Karzai’s re-election. The vote in August was marred by fraud and cast a fresh cloud over Karzai, who has been unable to provide security and basic services to many of Afghanistan’s 28 million people.
Obama briefed Karzai by secure video hookup on Monday night to outline the plan. In his speech and a White House statement, he made clear Karzai is expected to take on corruption and has 18 to 24 months to make progress.
“This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over,” Obama said.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the July 2011 deadline sent an important signal around the world.
“I think that was a deadline to send to our allies that we are not asking for open-ended commitments and to send a warning to the Afghans and the Pakistanis that they have to make a serious effort,” he said.
More NATO troops
Major US troop movements from the new deployment are likely to begin in January and all 30,000 troops should be in place by the end of August, defence officials said.
The vanguard of the US buildup is expected to be the swift deployment of 9,000 Marines into some of the most dangerous parts of the country - Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand.
The head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said after Obama’s speech that he expected “at least 5,000 more forces from other countries in our alliance and possibly a few thousand more.”
Beyond the United States, members of the alliance now have about 42,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
Canada, which has more than 2,800 soldiers on the ground, welcomed Obama’s decision, with foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon saying the “additional US resources will help to provide a more secure environment for the Afghan people.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Obama’s speech was “courageous, determined and lucid, giving new impetus to the international commitment” but he did not immediately commit to adding to France’s nearly 3,100 troops now in the war zone.
The new US deployment fell short of the recommendation for 40,000 troops made in August by US Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan.
McChrystal said after Tuesday’s speech that Obama’s decision “has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task.”
Obama’s plan also attempted to satisfy concerns on both sides of the US political divide and represented a middle ground between conflicting options advocated by some of his senior advisers.
Sending more troops addresses demands from his generals and Republicans, while stressing that the US commitment is not open-ended is an attempt to placate anti-war Democrats.
Democrats gave Obama a mixed review. Some expressed disappointment that he did not give a final date for a US withdrawal after eight years of inconclusive war.
“While I appreciate that the president made clear we won’t be in Afghanistan forever, I am disappointed by his decision not to offer a timetable for ending our military presence there,” said senator Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat.
The cost of the troop increase, estimated at $30 billion for fiscal 2010, could set off a battle in Congress, with some Democrats calling for a temporary war surtax to pay for it.
A long-term commitment “could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $900 billion over the next decade, which could devour our ability to pay for the actions necessary to rebuild our own economy,” said Democratic representative David Obey.
Obama sought to reassure NATO allies he was not abandoning the war effort, while insisting they need to do their part.
“For what’s at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility,” he said. “What’s at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world.”
Obama also focused on Pakistan in his speech, saying a cancer had taken root in its border region with Afghanistan and promised US help to end it.
The pledge comes as Pakistan’s civilian government is teetering. Some officials in Islamabad fear the US surge in Afghanistan will further destabilize their country.
“We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear,” Obama said.