Obama sets Qaeda defeat as top goal in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON Fri Mar 27, 2009 5:28pm EDT

1 of 12. A NATO soldier runs for cover after an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion during a mission in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, March 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama unveiled a new war strategy for Afghanistan on Friday with a key goal -- to crush al Qaeda militants there and in Pakistan who he said were plotting new attacks on the United States.

"The situation is increasingly perilous," Obama said in a somber speech in which he sought to explain to Americans why he was boosting U.S. involvement in the seven-year-old war and expanding its focus to include Pakistan.

The new strategy comes with violence in Afghanistan at its highest level since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks on the United States. The militia has escalated its attacks, often operating from safe havens in border regions of Pakistan.

"The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked," Obama said, stressing that stabilizing Afghanistan required an international effort, not just an American one.

He said the U.S. military in Afghanistan would shift the emphasis of its mission to training and expanding the Afghan army so that it could take the lead in counter-insurgency operations and allow U.S. troops to eventually return home.

Obama plans to send 4,000 more U.S. troops to train the army, along with hundreds of civilian personnel to improve the Afghan government's delivery of basic services. The force will be in addition to the 17,000 combat troops Obama has already ordered sent to Afghanistan ahead of elections in August.

The 17,000 will reinforce 38,000 U.S. troops and 32,000 from some 40 NATO allies and other nations in Afghanistan.

The new strategy also calls for the United States to reach out to Afghanistan's neighbors, including U.S. foe Iran, step up military and economic aid for Pakistan, and ask NATO to send more troops for the election and to train the army and police.

Britain said it was ready to dispatch more troops, while other European Union countries welcomed the new U.S. plans and held out the prospect of more aid and doing more training.

Representatives of the EU, United States, Russia, China and Central Asian states, meeting in Moscow, pledged more help in Afghanistan's fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.

DISRUPT, DISMANTLE, DEFEAT

The Afghan government said it welcomed all the major conclusions of the U.S. review of Afghan policy, while Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said the new strategy reflected Islamabad's view that military action alone would not the solution.

Obama said his new strategy had a "clear and focused goal" -- to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Multiple intelligence estimates had warned that al Qaeda was actively planning attacks on the United States from safe havens in the mountainous border regions of Pakistan, he said.

"For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world. But this is not simply an American problem. The safety of the world is at stake."

The plan puts Obama's stamp on a war he inherited from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, whom he criticized for becoming distracted by the Iraq war and failing to devote enough resources to the military effort in Afghanistan.

By stating that the main mission is to target al Qaeda militants, Obama played down more ambitious goals embraced by Bush and other NATO leaders, who said a year ago the aim was to build a stable, prosperous and democratic Afghan state.

Analysts say the success or failure of Obama's Afghan policy will likely help define Obama's presidency, although it is his handling of the U.S. economic crisis that will be the centerpiece of his term.

"To me it looks like very much the Bush strategy for Iraq in 2006, which focused on kinetic operations to try to kill or capture al Qaeda and handing responsibility to Iraqi security forces, and that ended up with a fiasco," said Christopher Schnaubelt, an analyst at NATO Defense College in Rome.

"It's going to take a lot longer to train up the Afghan army and police than the administration would recognize. They are already having trouble getting volunteers now. How they get new recruits, I don't think they've figured out yet."

BENCHMARKS

Obama set no timetable for the strategy, but he said the United States would not "blindly stay the course" and would set benchmarks for the Afghan government to crack down on corruption and ensure it used foreign aid to help its people.

He said key to defeating al Qaeda was strengthening the weak civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, where he said al Qaeda and its allies were a "cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."

The United States would give economic and military aid to Pakistan to help it root out al Qaeda from the tribal areas, but, he added: "After years of mixed results, we will not provide a blank check."

Obama's plan got broad support in Washington from fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans, although some expressed reservations over Pakistan's ability to take on al Qaeda, and whether the plan offered enough help for Islamabad.

In an illustration of the violence dogging Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed 37 people when he blew himself up in a crowded Pakistani mosque near the Afghan border on Friday, government officials said.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick, Andrew Gray and Thomas Ferraro in Washington, Mark John and David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Christina Fincher in London and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; editing by Mohammad Zargham)