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Military buildup in Afghanistan warranted, Obama says

But, the president adds, troop levels will be watched carefully, and be accompanied by civilian and diplomatic efforts.

March 30, 2009|Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON — Invoking what he described as a lesson of Vietnam, President Obama said Sunday that his commitment to step up military operations in Afghanistan was not open-ended, and that success would require vigorous diplomatic and development efforts there and in neighboring Pakistan.

Obama framed the escalation of military activity in Afghanistan and aid for Pakistan that he announced Friday as part of an effort to regain focus on defeating or neutralizing Al Qaeda, which was dislodged from enclaves in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

"We have to ensure that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can serve as a safe haven for Al Qaeda. And, unfortunately, over the last several years what we've seen is -- essentially -- Al Qaeda moving several miles from Afghanistan to Pakistan but effectively still able to project their violence and hateful ideologies around the world," Obama said in an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Pressed by Schieffer about whether his decision to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan might leave the U.S. more deeply mired in the conflict, Obama replied:

"I'm enough of a student of history to know that the United States in Vietnam and other countries, other epics of history have overextended to the point where they were severely weakened."

He added that Afghanistan's history showed it had been notoriously resistant to foreign intervention.

For that reason, Obama said, the U.S. needs to emphasize training the Afghan military to shoulder more of the burden and to "make sure that our civilian efforts, our diplomatic efforts and our development efforts are just as robustly encouraged."

Obama said he hoped to gain closer cooperation from the Pakistani government through increased foreign assistance and by convincing it that Al Qaeda and the Taliban were a threat to the country's own stability.

He deflected Schieffer's opening comment that "this has really now become your war, hasn't it?"

"I think it's America's war," Obama replied, saying it was a continuation of the effort launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even with his plans for a military buildup, Obama has downsized policy goals for Afghanistan from the ambitions of the Bush administration, which envisioned the invasion as a prelude to democratization.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said as much on another weekend news show.

"I think the near-term objective has been narrowed" to "reversing the Taliban's momentum and strengthening the Afghan army and police and really going after Al Qaeda as the president said," he told Chris Wallace of "Fox News Sunday."

Also Sunday, the Afghan Supreme Court ruled that President Hamid Karzai should remain in office until a new leader is chosen in a late-summer election, a decision that extends his term more than three months. According to the constitution, elections should be held 30 to 60 days after Karzai's term ends on May 21. The election commission, however, pushed the date to Aug. 20, citing security fears, lingering mountain snows and logistical problems such as ballot distribution.

In volatile northwest Pakistan, militants fired rockets at police chasing them after a kidnapping, killing a senior police official and five other people, a government official said.

Closer to home, Obama left open the possibility of stationing National Guard troops on the border with Mexico to prevent violence from that country's drug war from spilling further into the U.S., but wanted to see whether an infusion of aid to the Mexican government reduces the mayhem.

Obama echoed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's assertion last week that the U.S. needs to do more to curb its behaviors that contribute to violence in Mexico.

"We've got to reduce the demand for drugs," Obama said. "We've got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south."

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azajac@tribune.com

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