By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the space of a month, President Barack Obama has shifted U.S. strategy from George W. Bush’s fixation on Iraq to a renewed focus on Afghanistan, where many Americans thought it should have always been.
After outlining in February an 18-month timetable to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq, Obama announced on Friday a policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan that will funnel more military and civilian aid to the two countries where Islamic extremism is the biggest threat to U.S. interests.
In so doing, Obama made some not-so-subtle jabs at former President Bush, saying for example that the United States would not “blindly stay the course” — a turn on the phrase Bush sometimes employed to describe his persistence in Iraq.
He shifted the emphasis of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan to a greater focus on training Afghan security forces to protect their people, and said policy toward Pakistan had to be linked to Afghanistan, not separate from it.
“For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. And those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq. Now, that will change,” he said.
Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001. But he quickly became worried about the possibility that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and led the United States into a war there in 2003.
The war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan languished as a result. Osama bin Laden remained free and al Qaeda and the Taliban enjoyed a resurgence that led to increased violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and put pressure on U.S. and NATO leaders to join the fight in a big way.
P.J. Crowley, a foreign policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former spokesman for the National Security Council, said Obama was shifting resources back to Afghanistan that had been moved out because of the Iraq war.
“It wasn’t just that we pulled out of Afghanistan. It was the inability at critical times — because we were tied down in Iraq — to do more in Afghanistan,” he said.
Obama has also redefined the U.S. mission. By stating that the main goal was to target al Qaeda militants, he shifted away from ambitious goals embraced by Bush, who said the aim was to build a stable, prosperous and democratic Afghan state.
Obama still faced some questions as to whether he was taking a sufficiently large step away from Bush’s policy. By sending in more troops and advisers and giving no clear way out of Afghanistan any time soon, was the policy any different?
“It doesn’t look very different to me,” said David Harris, who wrote a 2004 book about militant Islam and who described himself as an Obama supporter.
“It’s been touted as new, but it doesn’t sound new to me. We’re still committed to a policy of military occupation as our principal form of anti-terrorism activity,” Harris said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama believed the Iraq war “took the focus and resources away from our effort in Afghanistan and that today’s decision and announcement refocuses on that region of the world” that poses the primary U.S. security threat.
He said Obama’s strategy has a more tightly focused goal than that of Bush, aimed at making sure the resources will be there for expansion of combat troops, trainers and a civilian presence as well as stepped-up diplomacy.
Republican Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in last year’s presidential election, welcomed what he called a “long overdue change of course in Afghanistan” and said that “for years now we have been fighting without a clear strategy and with insufficient resources.”
But in a sign that Obama’s new policy was not sitting well with his left flank, a group called Peace Action West circulated an email that called on the president to rethink “the military surge” in Afghanistan.
“A military escalation is going to unite the insurgency, and ultimately mean more American and Afghan casualties and less security,” said the group’s political director, Rebecca Griffin.
Obama said the United States must stay involved to prevent al Qaeda from launching new attacks against the United States, a prospect that he said was possible.
Republican strategist Scott Reed said the criticism from the left was a sign Obama was facing the reality of governing as opposed to the rhetoric of the campaign trail. “It just causes him more problems from his far-left flank,” Reed said.
Editing by David Storey