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Obama’s big challenge lies in selling Afghan decision

Wed., Nov. 25, 2009

Former Taliban fighters gather at a police station after surrendering to U.S. and Italian soldiers Saturday in western Herat, Afghanistan.  President Barack Obama is expected to use his speech Tuesday partly to explain why his war strategy will be successful against the Taliban.  (Associated Press)
Former Taliban fighters gather at a police station after surrendering to U.S. and Italian soldiers Saturday in western Herat, Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is expected to use his speech Tuesday partly to explain why his war strategy will be successful against the Taliban. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – When he addresses the nation next week on his Afghanistan strategy, President Barack Obama will face the central challenge of explaining why he is escalating an 8-year-old war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public, while outlining plans for leaving it.

Obama’s prime-time remarks, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, will begin the White House effort to sell his revised war plan – which under one leading scenario calls for sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops – to powerful skeptics within his party, reluctant allies abroad and an Afghan public uncertain whether international forces or the Taliban will win the war.

Administration officials say the speech will outline a modest endgame for Afghanistan that would allow U.S. forces to leave and set a general time frame for achieving that result. The remarks will last about 40 minutes, officials said, roughly twice as long as then-President George W. Bush took to outline his Iraq “surge” strategy nearly three years ago.

Obama’s speech is expected to include an appeal to NATO allies, which the president alluded to Tuesday, saying that “one of the things I’m going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners in this process.”

“I’ve also indicated that after eight years – some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done – it is my intention to finish the job,” Obama said during a news conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we’re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals that they will be supportive.”

What is emerging from White House discussions is a plan favored by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that would deploy between 30,000 and 35,000 additional U.S. troops and call on NATO allies to contribute another 10,000 soldiers. That would bring the total number of new allied troops to about 40,000, the number sought by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Gates is asking for help at a time when the European public, even more than Americans, opposes any military escalation in Afghanistan, and Obama has in the past told Gates that he doubts that NATO leaders will agree to send additional forces, according to White House officials.

But Gates’ proposal has won a number of powerful advocates within the military and the administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It appears to be the most widely supported option, although Obama advisers say he has yet to make known his final decision. There are currently 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Obama’s decision to outline an escalation and an exit simultaneously is the result of months of deliberation over a military proposal to expand the war, with no assurance that doing so would result in a more stable Afghanistan. The debate exposed divisions within the administration over the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and, for the second time this year, forced Obama to reconsider his goals for what he once called a “necessary war.”

Much of Obama’s deliberation, according to White House advisers involved in the process, has been focused not only on ensuring that enough forces reach the battlefield but also on discouraging future troop requests if the security situation deteriorates. Obama has demanded that all troop options be explained in terms of realistic goals and timelines, an acknowledgment that the American public has limited patience for an expensive new military commitment at a time of economic hardship at home.

Some of Obama’s most influential civilian advisers, led by Vice President Joe Biden, favor a more narrow counterterrorism strategy that would accelerate the training of Afghan forces and intensify aerial strikes against al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many congressional Democrats prefer Biden’s approach, and Obama has been considering a proposal that would send 10,000 additional U.S. troops.

In his address, White House advisers say, Obama intends to explain why his option is the right one to fight the Taliban, destroy al-Qaida and train Afghan troops to take over the fight. President Hamid Karzai said at his inauguration this month that he hopes the transition from U.S. to Afghan forces is complete within five years, giving the Obama administration a de facto timeline.

Obama’s advisers say he is likely to specify what the Karzai government must accomplish in the months ahead to justify the additional troops, who would be dispatched in stages over the next year.

The phased deployment would allow Obama to evaluate military gains and Karzai’s progress in strengthening the Afghan government. White House advisers say Obama is looking for “off ramps” that would allow him to adopt a strategy more narrowly focused on al-Qaida if the one he chooses is not showing results.

“If you don’t define your goals in a way that’s achievable in the short term, you’ll have another huge challenge explaining why you’re leaving without having achieved them,” said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations about the policy and its presentation. “The goal, I don’t believe, will be an Afghanistan free of the Taliban; it will not be an Afghanistan where the government is in control of the entire geography of the country. It has to be a goal we can reach, and that’s what you’re going to hear.”

Obama’s speech will be followed quickly by congressional testimony from several military and civilian officials whose support for the plan is central. McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, have been told to prepare to testify as early as next week before key committees that would consider any additional war funding.

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