Obama sets Qaeda defeat as top goal in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama  unveiled a new war strategy for Afghanistan yesterday 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 Sept. 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.

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 Defence 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.”

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.”

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