Obama outlines strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan
On the day that a suicide bomber killed dozens of Pakistanis, President Obama on Friday announced a new plan to commit thousands more American troops to Afghanistan and provide more aid to Pakistan in a bid to quell a resurgence by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Obama, who called Pakistan’s western border region “the most dangerous place in the world,” evoked images of the Sept. 11 attacks in describing the urgent need to initiate a new strategy. His plan includes increasing by $1.5 billion the annual spending for civilian efforts in Pakistan and sending 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces, in addition to the deployment to Afghanistan of 17,000 soldiers and Marines that the president ordered last month.
The new plan gives tremendous latitude to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top military commander in the region, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two are considered likely to wield the most influence among U.S. officials in crafting the particulars of the campaign.
The suicide attack in a mosque in northwest Pakistan that killed at least 50 worshipers served as a reminder of the violence that the new policy aims to curb through what Obama described as a “stronger, smarter” and more comprehensive approach than the one used by the Bush administration.
The strategy, coming after a lengthy White House review, firmly places Obama’s stamp on the war effort. In place of optimistic declarations of progress that were common under former President Bush, Obama somberly tried to lower expectations.
“The road ahead will be long, and there will be difficult days,” he cautioned.
But he also leaned heavily on Bush’s argument that the mission is necessary because Al Qaeda is plotting attacks on the United States.
The new approach left many important questions of timing and tactics to be decided later, by military and diplomatic strategists who are still at work on the details.
Those details will determine how long the plan will take, how much it will cost, how benchmarks will be applied and enforced, and how the plan’s specific strategies -- such as retarding a Taliban drive in Afghanistan or rooting out Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan -- will be pursued.
Much of what Obama formally presented as his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan was known in the days preceding his announcement.
Besides extra troops, Obama will assign hundreds of civilian officials to Afghanistan to improve public services and governance and try to end the country’s reliance on opium production.
Drive to dismantle
U.S. officials will try to reconcile with former Taliban members in Afghanistan and said the new nonmilitary aid to Pakistan would encourage opposition to extremists in that country, all part of a drive to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda,” Obama said.
It will be left to military and diplomatic officials around the world to fill in the details. For instance, the U.S. command in Afghanistan will begin work on a new “joint campaign plan” to reflect the new strategy, a senior military officer said.
Likewise, it will be left to Holbrooke and Petraeus to act on Obama’s request to better integrate U.S. military and civilian efforts in the region.
The lack of detail in some cases has resulted in controversy. For example, Obama emphasized that there would be no “blank check” for U.S. spending or open-ended commitment of time, but he did not impose limits on either. As a result, many conservatives and moderates who feared that he would scale back U.S. goals cheered his comments Friday, while antiwar groups expressed dismay.
“We want to be able to support the president and his efforts to protect the American people from the threat of Al Qaeda,” said Tom Andrews, a former Maine lawmaker and head of the group Win With- out War. “But the policy announced today will fail to do so and instead takes a significant step toward a perilous quagmire.”
The outcome of the strategy review was seen by some as a victory for those who favored a more extensive involvement in Afghanistan over those who preferred to minimize U.S. goals there.
“We should all be thankful the ‘maximalists’ have won the debate,” said Lisa Curtis, a former CIA and congressional analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The American people will be safer because of it.”
A principal goal of Obama’s announcement Friday was political: to strengthen U.S. and allied resolve at a time when both have been flagging and the public is preoccupied with the economy. A Gallup poll this month showed that 38% of Americans believe the war is going well.
Obama said there will be benchmarks for both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, resurrecting a device Bush used when he was trying to placate a country anxious about the Iraq war.
The Afghans will be asked to meet goals regarding, for example, the number of security forces and civilian officials, and employment programs and other government efforts, officials told reporters after Obama’s announcement, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules of the briefing.
The Pakistanis will be judged on the number of troops trained and equipped to fight terrorism, the number of sorties against militants, economic development programs and more subjective measures, such as their willingness to join in the fight against the militants.
The additional $1.5 billion that the Pakistani government is to receive could be reduced, in theory at least, if Islamabad doesn’t meet the benchmarks, under the pending congressional proposal that would authorize it.
Officials said they did not intend to announce their benchmark goals for the two countries or specify penalties. But military officials said they intended to assess progress toward the end of the year and decide then if more needs to be done.
Obama on Friday did not call for an “exit strategy,” as he did in a recent “60 Minutes” interview. Instead, the president and other officials suggested that the U.S. role would end when Afghan security forces are capable of handling the job.
“We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems,” Holbrooke said.
Such comments echoed Bush’s frequent remark that in Iraq, U.S. forces would “stand down” as Iraqis “stand up,” and left open the possibility of additional years of commitment.
Military officials involved in the review, however, said there was an emphasis on short-term goals and frequent assessments and that participants steered away from larger, long-term targets.
For instance, the U.S. command in Afghanistan had proposed a goal of as many as 400,000 army, police and local security forces. But concerns over costs, and a reluctance to set too many long-term goals, led officials to shelve the expansion for now.
The Afghan army now has 90,000 troops. U.S. officials are sticking with a preexisting objective of 134,000 by 2011. Afghanistan has 80,000 national police officers, close to the current target of 82,000. But most of the officers need additional training, U.S. officials said.