Farah Stockman and Michael Kranish

To quell Taliban insurgency and secure U.S.: Obama

WASHINGTON: U.S. President Obama laid out an aggressive strategy on Tuesday night to end the war in Afghanistan by rapidly deploying 30,000 new troops to quell the Taliban insurgency, and establish conditions that would allow American soldiers to begin to withdraw in less than two years.

During the 40-minute prime time address — perhaps the most anticipated speech of his presidency — Mr. Obama said his plan would allow the U.S. and its allies to “end this war successfully.” But he also left the door open for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for many years to come, with the ultimate pace of a U.S. draw-down determined by security conditions on the ground.

Mr. Obama sought to build a strong rationale for continuing the war, even as he sketched out a plan to draw it to a close, with the first troops pulling out in July 2011.

“I do not make this decision lightly,” said Mr. Obama at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. “I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicentre of the violent extremism practised by Al-Qaeda.”

Amid declining support for the war around the country and in his own Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama avoided using the language of outright victory used so often during his presidential campaign. Instead of talk of “winning” in Afghanistan, he spoke of degrading the Taliban’s capabilities enough to transfer responsibility for security to Afghans themselves, similar to the handover that is under way in Iraq.

“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,” he said.

Mr. Obama appointed General Stanley A. McChrystal in May to devise a plan for success. But the President has appeared to be at odds with General McChrystal since September, when the General’s dire assessment of the situation was leaked to the media, along with his request for 44,000 more troops. Instead of immediately fulfilling the request, Mr. Obama deliberated for three months, seeking detailed justifications. Mr. Obama said the U.S. must instil a sense of urgency in the Afghan government and be realistic about its own limitations at a time of economic hardship here at home. “Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort — one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade,” he said. “Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly to the people of Afghanistan, saying the U.S. has no interest in occupation. He also spoke directly to the people of Pakistan, pledging U.S. friendship “long after the guns have fallen silent” but said the U.S. “cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service