PHOENIX (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday called the conflict in Afghanistan “a war worth fighting” as he sought to stiffen U.S. public support before an election there this week that will test his new strategy.
Obama’s words were designed to prepare Americans for the long haul. U.S. combat deaths have risen since he ordered a troop buildup to confront a resurgent Taliban, and polls show public backing for the eight year-war has softened.
“The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight,” Obama said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest U.S. military veterans group. “This will not be quick nor easy.”
Obama described why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.
“This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity,” Obama said. “Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”
“So this is not only a war worth fighting, this is fundamental to the defense of our people,” Obama said.
Since taking office in January, he has shifted focus from the more unpopular war in Iraq to Afghanistan as his top foreign policy priority.
Obama spoke as Afghans prepared to vote in a presidential election Thursday that the Taliban, stronger than at any time since they were driven from power in 2001, have vowed to disrupt.
Securing the balloting will be a crucial test for Obama’s strategy that has rushed 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year. Underlining the threat, the Taliban Saturday claimed a suicide car bomb that killed seven people in Kabul.
In a speech that also covered Iraq, defense spending and healthcare for veterans, Obama did not comment on the Afghan presidential contenders to avoid charges of U.S. interference.
Despite the administration’s unease with President Hamid Karzai, polls show the incumbent comfortably leading his nearest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but not by enough to avoid a run-off.
The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will deliver a strategy assessment shortly after the election. It comes as surging Taliban violence is exerting pressure on Washington to show results.
After a record 44 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in July, a recent CNN poll showed U.S. public support for the war at a new low of 41 percent, with 54 percent opposed.
Obama’s strategy has called for increased reconstruction aid as well as troops, but the effort to bring in more civilians to help rebuild has been slow.
He has worked to draw neighboring Pakistan into a regional crackdown on al Qaeda and their Taliban allies.
Obama said his strategy recognizes that the insurgents had moved their bases to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan.
He reiterated that the United States was on track to “remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, Obama had accused the Bush administration of being distracted by Iraq and neglecting Afghanistan.
Obama addressed the VFW a year ago when he was still a candidate and had to defend his credentials to serve as U.S. commander-in-chief. This time, the Democratic president received a polite but less-than-rousing reception from the group, which is known for conservative views.
In Phoenix, Obama was unable to escape the fierce domestic debate over healthcare reform. Dozens of protesters on each side stood on opposite sides of the street shouting at each other outside the convention hall where he spoke.
Editing by Alan Elsner