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Obama outlines strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan

The president's plan to to fight security threats in the region will add 4,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan forces and will increase spending on civilian efforts in both countries.

March 28, 2009|Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — 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.

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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.

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