Obama Says Afghanistan Is 'Increasingly Perilous'

Obama declares U.S. must push harder against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

March 27, 2009 -- Calling the situation in Afghanistan "increasingly perilous," President Barack Obama today announced an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan and said the United States and its allies must embrace a singular mission in the region: to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" al Qaeda and destroy its safe haven in the region.

"That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you," Obama said.

The president announced that he's sending 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, outlined benchmarks to measure progress and detailed new diplomatic efforts and more civilian aid to further development efforts in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Read George Stephanopoulos' analysis of Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan here.

In outlining his administration's new strategy for the region, Obama said that for six years Afghanistan has been "denied the resources that it demands" because of the focus on the war in Iraq.

"To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama said.

Obama was flanked by his national security team for the announcement, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen, and Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The president's National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones (Ret.), also stood on stage, along with former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who chaired the president's interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the audience were Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of Central Command; Army Lt. Gen. Eikenberry, ambassador to Afghanistan-designate; and members of the U.S. military and diplomatic corps and USAID who will soon be sent to the region.

Obama framed the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan as intrinsically linked and said the future there was not just a concern for the United States but an "international security challenge of the highest order."

"The safety of people around the world is at stake," Obama said.

Noting that 3,000 innocent Americans were killed on Sept. 11, the president said that since then, al Qaeda and its allies have killed thousands across the globe, including Muslims.

"Most of the blood on their hands is the blood of Muslims, who al Qaeda has killed and maimed in far greater numbers than any other people. That is the future that al Qaeda is offering to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a future without opportunity or hope, a future without justice or peace."

Obama also went further than the United States has in the past to criticize the Afghan government for the rampant corruption that is said to have hampered progress.

"We view it as a cancer eating away at the country and it has to be dealt with," Holbrooke later told reporters.

Reaction from key senators was largely positive. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., called the plan "realistic and bold."

"Many of us have long advocated more troops for training Afghan security forces and a clear mission for our forces that are risking their lives, and this new policy is a down-payment in that direction," Kerry said.

The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, praised Obama's new strategy, saying it was basically a continuation of the Bush administration policy that Obama criticized during the presidential campaign.

"I think the surge in Afghanistan is a good idea," McConnell told reporters. "It was made possible by the success of the surge in Iraq."

McConnell predicted "broad support among Republicans" for the strategy and praised the president for his flexibility in a strategy that McConnell said would frustrate Obama's "own political left, but is in the best interests of the country.

"This is a fairly significant pivot here against his roots and the kind of left portion of his Democratic party," said McConnell, framing Obama's policy in Iraq and Afghanistan as essentially indistinguishable from what Sen. John McCain's would have been as president.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Dick Lugar, R-Ind., said the "severity of the threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan unites our sometimes fractious political debate.

"The emergent Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy properly directs the deployment of substantial additional civilian capacity," Lugar said. "Success in Afghanistan may depend on the attitudes of the people, the progress of reconstruction, and the development of the economy, as much as it depends on battlefield victories."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the plan for Afghanistan is "on the right track" but said he was skeptical that the Pakistanis will secure their border and disagreed with the administration that progress in Afghanistan was dependent upon success on the Pakistan side of the border.

Obama Outlines Troop Increases

The additional 4,000 troops being sent to Afghanistan will focus on training the Afghanistan National Army.

These 4,000 troops are on top of the 17,000 U.S. forces Obama has already committed to arrive in Afghanistan this spring and summer.

"That is how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our troops home," Obama said.

By mid-2011, the Obama administration expects a fully trained Afghan Army of 135,000 and a fully trained Afghanistan Police Force -- to be trained by the French and other NATO and European Union member countries -- of 80,000. There are currently about 70,000 Afghan army troops, and fewer than 40,000 Afghan police, officials said.

The president did not outline any set timetable for troop withdrawal, but did set progress benchmarks for the first time.

The key metrics Obama intends to use to measure progress include: efforts to train Afghan Security forces, U.S. success in combating insurgents, the growth of Afghanistan's economy and the levels of production of illicit narcotics.

"Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course," he said.

Obama said there is no chance for peace in the region without some sort of outreach to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He highlighted the success the U.S. had in Iraq by reaching out to former enemies to fight together against al Qaeda but cautioned that the two situations are not the same.

Absent from the administration's announcement today, however, was any mention of an exit strategy.

"We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems," Holbrooke said.

Reaching Out to Taliban

"I have no illusions that this will be easy. In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al Qaeda. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country," Obama said.

Speaking to NATO leaders in Brussels on March 10, Vice President Joe Biden said the surge principle applied in Iraq to Sunni militias could be used to reach out to moderate members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"The idea of what concessions would be made is well beyond the scope of my being able to answer, except to say that whatever is initiated will have to be ultimately initiated by the Afghan government, and will have to be such that it would not undermine a legitimate Afghan government," Biden said. "But I do think it is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state."

Obama administration officials said that intelligence sources report that some Taliban fighters could be convinced to break away, those fighting the U.S. right now for the money or because of tribal feuds.

But the notion of bringing Taliban into the fold should not be overstated, officials cautioned.

"We know that the core Taliban leadership, led by Mullah Omar, is determined not to negotiate with anybody," Riedel said, referring to the reclusive leader of the Taliban who once imposed an austere Islamic government on Afghanistan and provided a haven for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. "They want to take Afghanistan back to the medieval hell that they created in the 1990s."

In the fall, the Obama administration will evaluate the impact that has been made by the additional 30,000-plus U.S. troops that will have been sent to Afghanistan since Election Day.

"This is a not a straitjacket, a detailed blueprint," Holbrooke told reporters today. "It's a framework within which there's plenty of flexibility."

Plan Developed From Four-Month Review

The Obama plan is the result of a four-month long policy review conducted in consultation with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, regional allies, NATO members, the European Union, military leaders and bipartisan leaders on Capitol Hill.

The president spoke yesterday to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and administration officials said Obama was "gratified by their reception to the new strategy."

Zardari and Karzai were pleased by the "refocused effort that is fully resourced with a clear goal and accountability," officials said.

Aides to the Pakistani president said Zardari pushed Obama on the U.S. giving technology to Pakistan, not only the helicopters and night-vision devices that have been discussed for years but also drone technology for the Pakistani military. Zardari did not receive any commitment from the U.S. president, the aides said.

Asked about reported tensions between the United States and Karzai, an Obama administration official said that Karzai has been criticizing the U.S. effort in his country for being "under-resourced" and for insufficiently dealing with the Pakistani component to challenges in the areas, two key elements in the new policy outlined by Obama today.

Holbrooke will continue to be engaged in the region and will be "in the face of the parties constantly," an administration official said.

ABC News has learned that Holbrooke will travel to the region next week and is expected to make stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Administration officials said Holbrooke will be engaged in bilateral meetings with leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan every six to eight weeks and trilateral meetings every three months.

Obama outlined new diplomatic efforts in Pakistan and called on Congress to pass legislation that would significantly increase aid to Pakistan that could be used for reconstructing projects and democracy efforts.

The bill, offered by Sens. Kerry and Lugar, would provide $1.5 billion in aid every year for the next five years.

But Obama cautioned that the U.S. aid does not constitute a "blank check" for Pakistan, noting "years of mixed results" in its anti-terrorism efforts.

"Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken – one way or another – when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets," he said.

To complement the increase in military presence in Afghanistan, Obama announced he will add hundreds more civilian workers who will focus on agriculture development, governance, anti-corruption efforts and disrupting the narcotics trade there.

"At a time of economic crisis, it is tempting to believe that we can short-change this civilian effort. But make no mistake: our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don't invest in their future," he said.

As part of the administration's new focus on agricultural development in Afghanistan, as a way to build local economies and combat drug traffickers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to take part in upcoming trilateral meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan slated for early May.

"This is a rural country," Riedel said, adding that the United States will try to encourage wheat cultivation in the country.

ABC News' Nick Schifrin contributed to this report.

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