After months of deliberations, President Barack Obama finally outlined his revised strategy for the Afghanistan war in a nationally televised address Tuesday night. The commander-in-chief repeatedly invoked 9/11, attempting to justify his plan to escalate the eight-year-old war, which calls for the rapid deployment of 30,000 additional US troops to the region by next summer.
Obama's decision to step-up the war effort in Afghanistan comes two weeks before he heads to Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Speaking at the US Military Academy at West Point to thousands of uniformed cadets, many of whom will likely be shipped off to Afghanistan when they graduate, Obama appeared somewhat subdued when he began his speech by saying that it is "important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place.
"We did not ask for this fight," the president continued. "On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers. They took the lives of innocent men, women and children without regard to their faith or race or station. Were it not for the heroic actions of the passengers on board one of those flights, they could have also struck at one of the great symbols of our democracy in Washington, and killed many more.
"As we know, these men belonged to al Qaeda – a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world’s great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents..."
Using the 9/11 attacks to justify an escalation could end up backfiring on Obama. George W. Bush routinely cited 9/11 to justify sending tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq, a country that did not play a role in the terrorist attacks. The national tragedy became a catch-all rationale that enraged Democrats when the previous administration invoked it to explain its policies.
Obama pointed out that it was the Bush administration that neglected Afghanistan and chose to shift its resources to Iraq, a policy move he said played a part in his decision to escalate the war.
"When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war," Obama said. "Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops."
Unlike Bush's escalation in Iraq, however, Obama’s surge includes a timetable for initiating troop withdrawal: July 2011.
"After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," Obama said.
However, the withdrawal will be dictated by conditions on the ground and is not set in stone. Obama could order the withdrawal of a single combat brigade and still claim he is meeting his goal for beginning to remove troops from the region.
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," Obama said. "We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
Obama's revised war plan will bring the total number of troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000, more than half of whom were deployed since he was sworn in as president less than a year ago. He said the new strategy has a clear goal: "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
"To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan," Obama said. "We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.
“The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans."
The war in Afghanistan has turned increasingly violent this years. The Pentagon reported that 298 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, 59 during the month of October alone, compared with 155 troops who died in 2008.
Obama said he has asked US allies to support the surge.
"Some have already provided additional troops, and we are confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead," Obama said, without identifying the countries.
"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. Now, we must come together to end this war successfully. 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."
The White House said Obama spoke with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Monday evening for about an hour to discuss the surge.
They discussed "a range of related issues, including security, governance, corruption, economic development, and regional relations," the White House said in a statement sent to reporters summarizing Obama and Karzai's discussion.
"Both Presidents agreed to redouble their efforts to improve the delivery of services to the Afghan people, particularly at the local level, and to reinvigorate economic development and investment, especially in the areas of agriculture, mining, water management, and energy."
Obama also spoke with Pakistani President Asif Zardari Tuesday morning about the troop increase "and to discuss his view for the way forward in Pakistan." The White House did not provide reporters with further details of their conversation.
Top Democratic lawmakers reacted swiftly to Obama’s speech, with some issuing highly critical statements denouncing the president's war strategy and the costs associated with it.
"I do not support the president's decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin). "It’s an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."
In an e-mail sent to his supporters earlier in the day, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said, "An escalation of the war in Afghanistan at a time of [domestic] economic dislocation and hardship raises questions about America's priorities and whether or not we are losing our way as we attempt to stride aside the globe as some Colossus."
Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Illinois.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and one of Obama's staunchest defender's, was also put off by the president's plan. In a brusque statement Durbin said, "President Obama asked for time n on a new policy in Afghanistan. I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight."
Even some Republicans, such as Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, were skeptical of the build-up.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said recently that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was an "unworthy partner" whose country does not warrant additional US aid, indicated she supported Obama’s plan.
"President Obama inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan because the Bush administration did not have a plan to get the job done," Pelosi said. "Tonight, the President articulated a way out of this war with the mission of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as safe havens to again launch attacks against the United States and our allies. The President has offered President Karzai a chance to prove that he is a reliable partner. The American people and the Congress will now have an opportunity to fully examine this strategy."
Obama also sharply rejected comparisons leveled by many of his supporters that Afghanistan will turn into another Vietnam, and again invoked 9/11 to explain why the comparison was off base.
"They argue that [Afghanistan] cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing," Obama said. "Yet this argument depends upon 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.
"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. To abandon this area now – and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance – would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies."
Funding the War
While Obama has vowed to put an end to the emergency supplemental requests the Bush administration used over the past eight years to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s becoming increasingly clear he will ask Congress to approve at least one more emergency funding request to pay for the troop increase, which is estimated to cost $1 million per soldier or $30 billion a year.
According to Jeff Leys, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, "War spending in 2010 will exceed $190 billion if indeed the Pentagon seeks - and Congress approves — $50 billion in 'emergency' funding.
"That's more than the $179 billion spent under President Bush in 2008, the previous high water mark for war spending. War spending in 2010 will also far exceed spending in 2009 (which is about $145 billion)," Leys wrote in a blog post last month.
Rep. David Obey, (D-Wisconsin), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed paying for the war by imposing a "war surtax" on individuals beginning in 2011.
Last month, Obey, Congressman John Murtha, (D-Pennsylvania), chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and eight other Democratic lawmakers, introduced the Share The Sacrifice Act, legislation that would "impose a graduated surtax so that the cost of the war is not borrowed.”
The bill does not appear to be attracting much support.
And it’s unlikely Congress will use the only means it has — the power of the purse — to put the brakes on the surge.
Indeed, Feingold told reporters Tuesdaythe surge "has to be paid for."
“I am opposed to doing it but certainly the idea of doing this without paying for it will be a further level of irresponsibility.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings Wednesday to scrutinize administration officials about the new war plans for Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify, while US Ambassador for Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, are expected to testify before Congress next week.