President Obama delivered a sober assessment tonight of the security situation in Afghanistan and announced that after a lengthy strategy review he has ordered additional troops, starting early next year, to target insurgents and secure key areas there.
"As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan," the president said at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"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," he said.
The addition of 30,000 troops will bring the U.S. force in Afghanistan to 100,000 troops.
The president stressed that this is not an open-ended increase in American forces -- "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," he said -- but it is necessary to establish conditions for an accelerated transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces.
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," the president said.
The president laid out a very tight schedule for deployment and withdrawal. American troops will begin to arrive in Afghanistan early next year -- "the fastest pace possible," the president said -- and the expectation is that they could begin to come home starting in July 2011.
Obama said he rejected any plans that did not establish a timeline or goals for withdrawal.
"The absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," he said. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
Obama laid out a status report on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and noted that while it is not "lost," the nation has "moved backwards" over the last several years because of the Taliban gaining momentum there.
"Our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population," the president said. "Our new commander in Afghanistan -- Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal -- has reported that the security situation is more serious than he anticipated. In short: the status quo is not sustainable."
The broader goal remains the same, Obama said: disrupting and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing future attacks in the United States.
In order to achieve that goal, the president laid out three key objectives: the military effort to create conditions to transition responsibility to the Afghan security forces; a civilian surge to provide greater security and stability for the Afghan government; and a renewed partnership with Pakistan.
Obama gathered his national security team on nine separate occasions for lengthy strategy sessions since mid-September. Tonight he emphasized that he did not take this decision lightly and noted his recent first-hand experience seeing the costs of war up close.