President Obama: U.S. Troops to Afghanistan at 'Fastest Pace Possible'

President will send 30,000 more troops to target insurgents, secure key areas.

December 1, 2009, 3:12 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2009— -- 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.

"As president, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars," he said. "I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I have visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I have travelled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place.

"I see firsthand the terrible wages of war," he said. "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Obama said his administration is moving forward "with the full recognition" that success in Afghanistan is "inextricably linked" to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the new strategy must work "on both sides of the border."

Obama said that his administration is committed to a partnership with Pakistan built on "mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust."

But Pakistan must do its part too, Obama said.

"We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed."

Obama touted this new strategy as an "international effort" with contributions from allies.

"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. Now, we must come together to end this war successfully," he said. "For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility -- what's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world."

Obama was joined on Air Force One for the flight to New York by several members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, Chief of U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

The president's audience at West Point was composed of around 4,200 cadets, West Point leadership, family members of cadets and members of the local community.

"There's going to be an initiative of Afghans taking responsibility in certain geographic areas, certainly during this term," an official told ABC News, adding that will allow a "thinning out" of the estimated 100,000 U.S. troops in the country "by the end of the president's first term."

It is not just the number of troops that will increase. There are expected to be close to 1,000 U.S. civilian personnel in Afghanistan by the first quarter of 2010, up from 320 currently, according to the official, to accomplish the civilian strategy goals of this plan.

Obama Has Tough Message for Afghan President Karzai

While the president laid out how the Taliban and al Qaeda have created instability in Afghanistan, he also noted that the elected government there has been "hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces."

Obama had a tough message for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government tonight: "The days of providing a blank check are over."

"President Karzai's inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction," he said. "And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance."

Obama said the United States will support provincial and district level government and specific ministries, such as those devoted to Afghan security, instead of just sending funds to Karzai's central government.

"Investments will be based on performance," the senior administration official said. "The era of the blank check for President Karzai is over."

And if Afghanistan's president continues to run a government that is full of corruption and fails to provide basic services, he may find himself out of the loop entirely.

At around 10 p.m. Monday, Obama held an hour-long video conference call with Karzai, whose office said the two leaders discussed in detail the security, political, military and economic aspects of the administration's strategy.

Obama Addresses Costs of Surge, Stresses Need for Deadlines

Skeptics, Republicans and Democrats alike, have said they are not convinced Obama's strategy will work and the White House has faced many questions about how it would pay for this surge in resources in Afghanistan.

Tonight the president said this new approach would cost $30 billion this year. He said he would work with Congress to address that cost and stressed that is why his plan for the troop commitment cannot be open-ended.

"The nation that I am most interested in building is our own," Obama said.

Today, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters there is great reservation in the caucus about any acceleration of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but added that he will withhold judgment until he hears from the president.

"Thirty-five thousand more troops is a big deal and it's going to be 35,000 times harder to extricate them from all this," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Liberal advocacy group sent an e-mail to its members today, urging them to call the White House and "Tell the president that we want him to focus on bringing our troops home, not escalating our involvement in Afghanistan."

One Democratic lawmaker has even suggested a new tax be imposed on Americans to fund the costs of additional troops. Gibbs said the president understands this is an expensive endeavor, but the administration will make sure it's part of the budget.

"Look, going forward, the president is not going to make a national security decision simply based on money alone," the press secretary said. "We're going to make sure this is part of our budget and we understand that going forward, we have to pay for this kind of stuff."

On the GOP front, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would be concerned if Obama lays out too strict a timeline for withdrawing American combat troops from Afghanistan.

"I have deep concerns about setting a date certain for withdrawal," McCain, who has long supported an infusion of combat troops in Afghanistan, told reporters today. "Success is what causes us to withdraw. You don't want to tell the enemy that you're coming or when you're leaving."

In an interview with Politico, former Vice President Dick Cheney said the president's approach projects "weakness" and that 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," Cheney said. "They're worried the United States isn't going to be there much longer and the bad guys are."

Gibbs responded by pointing out that Obama has doubled the number of security forces since he took office, making the country more safe.

"I would be a busy man if all I did was respond to the poppings off of the former vice president," Gibbs said on "GMA." "I'm not entirely sure what qualifies the former vice president to render an opinion on Afghanistan."

Obama Faces Skeptical American Public

Obama addressed some of the criticism and concerns that have been aimed at his administration during the strategy review. First, the president said that there are some who suggest "suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam," but he dismissed that as "a false reading of history"

"Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency," he said. "And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."

Obama said that to abandon the Afghanistan-Pakistan region would "significantly hamper" the United States' ability to keep pressure on al Qaeda and risk future attacks at home.

As he increases the number of troops in Afghanistan, Obama is faced with the ghosts of wartime presidents past. The annual approval ratings of the last three presidents enmeshed in unpopular wars -- Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush -- declined sharply during their presidency.

How the ongoing war in Afghanistan affects Obama remains to be seen, but there clearly are challenges.

The president's approval rating on handling Afghanistan has fallen more steeply than on any other issue, down from 63 percent last spring to 45 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Of those polled, 52 percent said the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting and 64 percent thought the risk of terrorism is the same whether the United States remains in Afghanistan or withdraws.

Gibbs said the president "sure believes" this is the last time he will be sending new troops.

ABC News' Martha Raddatz, Z. Byron Wolf and Gary Langer contributed to this report

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events