WASHINGTON -- Looking to end one of America's longest wars, President Obama will send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer, but start to withdraw at least some American forces in July 2011.
The first Marines could arrive in Afghanistan by Christmas, the vanguard of an accelerated buildup that would see all of the extra troops there by next summer.
"I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan," Obama said in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
"I do not make this decision lightly," Obama said, stressing that he recognizes how weary Americans are with war, and how eager they are to focus most on rebuilding the battered U.S. economy.
"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," he said, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."
New troops from the U.S. and its allies, Obama said, "will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
His promise of a surge of troops, coupled with a timetable for beginning a withdrawal, was a grand gamble aimed at navigating among the military's request for more troops, Islamic insurgents' belief that they can outlast the U.S. and antiwar public opinion, especially among his fellow Democrats.
At the Pentagon, however, some officials already fretted that the strategy is rooted in the political realities in Washington, not in the burgeoning security problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's emphasis on a timeline for withdrawal, stressed by officials who briefed the media, could encourage the Taliban to wait out the U.S. effort, some fear.
Obama's escalation strategy is aimed at stopping terrorists from retaking hold of Afghanistan -- their base for planning the 2001 attacks against the U.S. -- while also signaling to the Afghan government that it must stand up to defend its own country, and to war skeptics in the U.S. that the war, now in its ninth year, won't drag on indefinitely.
The West Point audience of about 4,250 included cadets and the families of cadets, as well as the secretaries of Defense, State and Veterans Affairs, and top Pentagon officers.
From Afghanistan, the U.S. commander who requested as many as 80,000 extra troops for his "low-risk" option called the final decision a good one.
"The Afghanistan- Pakistan review led by the president has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task," Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in a statement. "The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the president's address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security."
Administration officials stressed that Obama's timetable only sets the start of the withdrawal of U.S. forces -- leaving it open for Obama to determine later whether and how quickly to keep withdrawing those troops and how long to take.
Presumably, Obama could stretch a withdrawal out for years if he and commanders felt that Afghan forces couldn't take over completely and guarantee that the Taliban wouldn't seize power again.
"Those variables -- pace and end -- will be dictated by conditions on the ground," a senior administration official said, one of two briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, which they insisted upon.
The official forecast a continued U.S. presence there for the foreseeable future, albeit with a much smaller footprint.
"While we do not intend ... to commit American combat forces indefinitely to Afghanistan, we do reaffirm our long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, but not at anything like 100,000 U.S. troops in their country," the official said.
By reserving the ability to keep U.S. troops there until Afghan forces are able to defend their country, Obama hopes he's sending a message to terrorists that they can't simply wait him out.
"If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they're misjudging the president's approach," the official said.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Obama told Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the plan in an hour-long call late Monday night.
During the talk, Obama "emphasized that U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan are not open-ended and must be evaluated toward measurable and achievable goals within the next 18 to 24 months," according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
"Both presidents agreed to redouble their efforts to improve the delivery of services to the Afghan people, particularly at the local level, and to reinvigorate economic development and investment, especially in the areas of agriculture, mining, water management and energy."
Obama also called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari Tuesday morning, then briefed more than 30 leaders of the Congress from both major parties at the White House before leaving for West Point.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Obama laid out a plan he hopes will stop the Taliban's resurgence, clean up Afghanistan's government and stand up its own defense forces so that U.S. troops can start withdrawing.
He ordered the extra troops into Afghanistan by next summer, accelerating a plan that initially had called for the deployment to be phased in from March through the rest of the year.
The rapid dispatch of extra troops would bring the U.S. total there to 98,000, and if the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq proceeds on schedule, for the first time there would be more American troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq. A hoped-for addition of 5,000 to 10,000 more troops from NATO and other countries would boost their numbers to between 47,000 and 52,000.
Most of the surge forces will travel to southern Afghanistan, often to places where there've been few or no coalition forces. That will require setting up housing, sanitation and security structures for those forces. In addition, the military will have to get enough vehicles into Afghanistan for those forces.
The extra troops will help fight the Taliban, secure key towns and cities, and train Afghan forces. The plan calls for boosting the Afghan army from 95,000 now to 134,000 by October 2010. That stops short of a more ambitious goal of boosting the Afghan army to 240,000 and the police from 92,000 to 160,000 by 2013.
"We're actually taking this in smaller increments because we think that a goal that large and that far out ... is more than we can accurately program for and predict the requirement for at this stage," a senior administration official said.
"We're going to aim to do what we've set ourselves out to do in 2010; and then based on that experience, adapt our milestones for 2011 and beyond."
Regarding Pakistan, Obama stressed the need for its government to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists who've fled from Afghanistan, as well as other terrorist networks.
"Stabilizing Pakistan really has three dimensions: a political dimension, an economic dimension and a security dimension," a senior administration official said. "The Pakistanis require help across all three of these aspects, in particular on the security front, where they face internal extremists, the Pakistani Taliban, if you will, who actually threaten their state."
Beyond the military challenges, Obama also faced a herculean political challenge selling an escalation to a war-weary country, to liberals who want to get out altogether, to fiscal conservatives and others who worry about the cost of the escalation, and to conservatives who want to get more troops in faster.
Recent Gallup polls found two-thirds of Americans believe things are going badly there, the worst verdict in the eight years of the war.
The public is divided over sending more U.S. troops. Gallup found 47 percent support sending more troops, up 5 percentage points in two weeks, but still short of a majority. At the same time, 39 percent want to start withdrawing troops, down 5 points in two weeks.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Liberals complained that Obama's war will divert resources from priorities at home.
"Perhaps nation building should begin at home," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "An escalation of the war in Afghanistan at a time of such economic dislocation and hardship raises questions about America's priorities and whether or not we are losing our way as we attempt to stride aside the globe as some Colossus."
Some conservatives lambasted Obama for taking more than three months to announce his decision.
Leading that attack, former Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview published Tuesday that the long deliberation already had signaled to the military, as well as to the Afghan people that the U.S. president was hesitant about the mission.
"Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they've been asked to do?" Cheney told Politico.
At the same time, he said, the average Afghan citizen "sees talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win. Those folks ... begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies. They're worried the United States isn't going to be there much longer and the bad guys are."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)
(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at www.mcclatchydc.com.
PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): OBAMA USAFGHAN
GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20091202 OBAMA USAFGHAN