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Afghanistan is no Vietnam, says Obama

By Aziz Haniffa
Last updated on: December 02, 2009 11:51 IST
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In a speech -- which unveiled a revised policy in Afghanistan -- that aroused worldwide interest, US President Barack Obama says Afghanistan is no Vietnam. Aziz Haniffa elucidates.

In a prime-time address from the military academy at West Point in New York, United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled his revised strategy for Afghanistan--which included sending an additional 30,000 troops to that war-ravaged country -- but was as much a new policy directive for  Pakistan.

30,000 troops to Afghanistan

The new strategy that followed over 20 hours and as much as seven strategy sessions in the White House Situation Room with his key cabinet  officials and military commanders, Obama said, "This review is now complete, and  as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan." 

Pull-out begins in 18 months

But to appease those who keep clamoring for an exit strategy, he said,  "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources  that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity  that  can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of  Afghanistan."

Obama asserted that "I do not make this decision lightly," and said he sees "firsthand the terrible wages of war." 

But he argued that "if I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Reiterating that "I do not make this decision lightly," Obama said, "I  make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practised by al Qaeda."
"It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak," he said.

"This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat. I the last few months alone, we have apprehended  extremists  within our borders who were sent here from the border region of  Afghanistan and  Pakistan to commit new acts of terror."

Obama warned that "this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our  partners in the region."

This is not just America's war

"Of course," he added, "this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America's war. Since 9/11, al Qaeda's safe-havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both  Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and  other extremists seek  nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use  them."

Obama declared that "our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." 

He announced that "we will meet these objectives in three ways," with the first being to "pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months."

"Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security."

Third, Obama said, "We will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan." 

"We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border  region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of  the border," he said.

Obama recalled that "in the past, there have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use  violence."

"But in recent years," he said, "as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who  are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no  doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy." 

Committed to a partnership with Pakistan

Obama spoke of how "in the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual  interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust." 

He pledged that "we will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those  groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot   tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose  intentions are clear."

Obama said that "America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development," and pointed out that "we are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting."

"And going forward," he said, "the Pakistani people must know: America  will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long  after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people
can be  unleashed." 

Thus, Obama in summing up the three core elements of his new strategy, said, it is "a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a  civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership  with Pakistan."

Obama briefs Karzai and Zardari   

In advance of announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan, Obama spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari about the way forward in both their respective countries, that would necessarily be for  all intents and purposes be a Made-in-America policy which they would have to  fall in line with.

The White House said that in a video teleconference that lasted over an hour between Obama and Karzai, "The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to   work closely together to ensure stability in Afghanistan and to prevent  the  country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists." 

"They also discussed a range of related issues, including security, governance, corruption, economic development, and regional relations," the read-out said.

It noted that "President Obama underscored the need for more rapid  development of the Afghan National Security Forces so that Afghans themselves  can assume greater responsibility over the security of their  country."

"The President also emphasized that US and international efforts in Afghanistan are not open-ended and must be evaluated toward measurable and achievable goals within the next 18 to 24 months," it added.

The statement said that "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."

In its readout of Obama's telephone call with Zardari, the White House said that "the two leaders discussed the President's decision on the way forward  in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

It said that "the President recognized the profound sacrifices Pakistan has made in its efforts to combat extremists in its northwest and emphasized that our goal is to defeat al Qaeda and to ensure stability in the  region."

"The two presidents agreed that the close partnership between Pakistan  and the United States is vital to success, and President Obama promised to  continue to assist Pakistan in its efforts against extremists," the White House
readout added.

Pakistan is crucial

Later, senior Administration officials briefing on background on the contents of the Obama's speech, said, "In Pakistan, we need to sustain our focus on al Qaeda and we need to help the Pakistanis stabilize their  state."

The officials explained, "That second part, stabilizing Pakistan, really has three dimensions—a political dimension, an economic dimension and a security  dimension."

"The Pakistanis require our help across all three of these aspects, in particular on the security front, where they face internal extremists, the Pakistani Taliban, if you will, who actually threaten their state," they said.

But also on the political and economic front, the officials noted, "The Pakistanis require our assistance, and our long-term aim with Pakistan is to establish and then sustain a strategic partnership which helps them bring stability to their state and in turn to the region."

During the session that followed, asked what help, in specific terms, does the US anticipate giving to the Pakistani military, one  official said, "You'll appreciate that, first of all, our assistance to the  Pakistani military extends back years. So there's a whole series of programs that are under way to try to assist them with materiel support, with financial support to help them with the costs that they've incurred because of ongoing  operations having to do with internal security, and with training 

"We should, from the outset," the official said, "underscore that the Pakistani military is a developed, fully functional military with a standing chain of command—it's pretty much a full capacity military. However, it's adjusting from a largely conventional tactics to what's required to fight its  internal extremists."

Thus, he pointed out that "we're very much partnered with the Pakistani military to make them as capable as possible to shift from their conventional  standards to what you might call counterinsurgency or internal  security."

The official refused to go into individual programs, saying "some of  which are sensitive," but said that "the bottom line is that we have, by way of  this strategic review just conducted, reaffirmed our aim for a long-term enduring strategic partnership, not only with the Pakistani military but also  with the Pakistani civilian government to meet their political and
economic  needs."

The plan will be tough to sell

Obama's new plan, however, is going to be a toughsell to not just the American public that is highly pessimistic -- going by all of the polls conducted recently-- in the wake of no end in sight after eight long years and increasing American casualties, but also among Democrats in the Congress, who see pouring billions of dollars particularly when the economic malaise in the country  continues and the deficit is in the trillions, could spell disaster for the party in the Congressional elections in 2010.

Meanwhile, he is also bound to get grief from the Republicans, who may argue, as they have led by the likes of Senator John McCain -- his unsuccessful  Republican opponent in the presidential polls -- that the surge is insufficient,  and he should have gone with the increase of 40,000 troops as requested by the  US Commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

So, it's certainly going to be a winter of discontent for the President over a war that some have predicted will be 'Obama's Vietnam.'

In fact, in his West Point speech, Obama acknowledged that "there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot  be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing."

"Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history," he argued.

""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."

Obama warned that "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."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC