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Obama Bets Big on Troop Surge

Extra 30,000 U.S. Soldiers for 18 Months; Republicans Say Timetable Poses Risk

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- President Barack Obama announced Tuesday a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, along with plans to begin withdrawing the reinforcements in 18 months -- a potentially high-risk political and military strategy.


DECEMBER 2, 2009

Such a firm date for troop drawdowns was unexpected. Administration officials hope that will pressure Kabul to reform its notoriously corrupt government. At the same time, it allows the White House to begin bringing soldiers home ahead of the 2012 elections.

With Tuesday's address, Mr. Obama made Afghanistan his war. He spoke at the grand and stately Eisenhower Hall, before a sea of gray-uniformed cadets, who face their own turn at war.

"Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards," the president said. "There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border....In short: the status quo is not sustainable."

The 35-minute address, punctuated only five times with applause, is likely to be remembered less for its eloquence than for the course it set for the U.S.

A year from now, the administration plans to assess progress in the war and decide how quickly to withdraw the 30,000 troops in the surge.

By increasing U.S. forces to nearly 100,000 -- while limiting their deployment -- Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to thread a middle path between a plan proposed three months ago by his commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which sought an open-ended commitment, and proponents of a more limited engagement. Mr. Obama traveled here, to the U.S. Military Academy, to announce what will likely be the defining foreign-policy decision of his term.

During the 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Obama derided the war in Iraq as a senseless and costly diversion from the "right" war in Afghanistan, which harbored Osama Bin Laden before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Earlier, Mr. Obama had voted against the 2007 troop surge ordered by President George W. Bush in Iraq.

Senior U.S. officials emphasized that the speed of an eventual troop drawdown, which is to begin with the transfer of authority to Afghan forces in July 2011, has yet to be determined. "Those variables, pace and end [of the withdrawal], will be dictated by conditions on the ground," said a senior administration official.

But in choosing a date to begin withdrawals, Mr. Obama said he was trying to limit U.S. involvement. "I believed it was very important for us to define the mission in a way that speaks to the very real security interests that we have in keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda, but to do so in a way that avoids...a nation-building commitment in Afghanistan," Mr. Obama told newspaper columnists Tuesday.

Gen. McChrystal had requested more than 40,000 reinforcements. While the Obama administration is hoping to get more than 5,000 additional troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, which would edge closer to Gen. McChrystal's total, the Afghan commander hadn't proposed a deadline for withdrawals.

But in a statement released by his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. McChrystal, who will testify about the new plan next week, said Mr. Obama had "provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task."

Mr. Obama's decision risks angering critics on the left wing of the Democratic Party, as well as national-security-minded Republicans, who initially were enthusiastic about the White House ordering a large number of reinforcements.

"A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who raised the issue Tuesday with Mr. Obama. "Success is the real exit strategy."

The White House has tapped Vice President Joe Biden, chief advocate of a lower-profile, counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, leader of U.S. Central Command and the architect of the surge in Iraq, to defend the president's plan on television Wednesday.

Timelines were a central dispute in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill during debate over Iraq. Several Bush administration officials argued that publicizing firm dates would encourage insurgents to wait out allied troops. But Mr. Obama and senior administration officials dismissed such concerns in Afghanistan, arguing that the Taliban was an unpopular insurgency that could be isolated and degraded relatively quickly.

"The absence of a timeline for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," Mr. Obama said in his address. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

Administration officials believe that increasing Afghan military and government capacity over the next 18 to 24 months will allow Kabul to spearhead the fight once the U.S. begins to withdraw troops.

The president's announcement sets off a frenzy of military activity. The plan calls for a rapid deployment -- all new troops are to be in Afghanistan by summer -- a strategy that senior administration officials hope will lead to a quick start and finish. The first reinforcements, thousands of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will receive their orders within days and start streaming into southern Afghanistan -- a Taliban stronghold -- by Christmas.

U.S. officials say the full complement of Marines will be in place by the end of the month. The remaining troops, as many as three brigades of soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division, will start heading to Afghanistan in spring.

Several military and defense officials questioned the White House's insistence that all 30,000 new troops be in Afghanistan by summer. The officials said it would be difficult to get the troops there quickly because everything must be flown into Afghanistan; the country is landlocked and lacks adequate roads. The U.S. will also have to expand its existing bases and build new ones to house arriving forces.

In Kabul, Afghan officials criticized the plan's fixed timetable as unrealistic. "We couldn't solve the Afghanistan problem in eight years, but now the U.S. wants to solve it in eighteen months? I don't see how it could be done," said Segbatullah Sanjar, chief policy adviser for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Write to Peter Spiegel at [email protected], Jonathan Weisman at [email protected] and Yochi J. Dreazen at [email protected]