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Obama Reaches Out to International Leaders for Support on Afghan Strategy

November 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama began to fill in world leaders about his new Afghan strategy. Ray Suarez speaks with a New York Times reporter for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama began filling in key international leaders today on his new war strategy for Afghanistan. It was part of the final run-up to his announcement in a nationally televised address tomorrow night.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: The president informed his top civilian and military aides of the decision last night, and set in motion a far-reaching overhaul of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The centerpiece is expected to be the deployment of up to 35,000 additional American troops, raising the total to some 100,000. The first to go are likely to be 9,000 U.S. Marines moving into southern Helmand Province, a center of Taliban resistance. But it’s already clear the president faces opposition in Congress.

Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders was on ABC yesterday.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Ver.: I have a real problem supporting 30,000 or 40,000 more troops and $100 billion more a year for that war, on top of what we’re spending in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the issue of cost, not only in lives but in treasure, will factor into the president’s address.

ROBERT GIBBS: He will certainly touch on the cost. This is neither the beginning of this debate, Ed, nor will this be the end of it. I think you will hear the president acknowledge the resource requirements.

RAY SUAREZ: Gibbs said Mr. Obama spoke today with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Both nations have pledged to send more forces.

Mr. Obama also spoke with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But France announced it will not add troops. Today’s New York Times reported President Obama is also ready to set out a time frame for the eventual American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And The Washington Post said the president will refocus efforts on Pakistan, Afghanistan’s troubled nuclear neighbor to the east. The address is set for tomorrow night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

For more on the administration’s decision-making, we talk to Eric Schmitt of The New York Times’ Washington bureau.

Eric, at this point, a full day before the president’s speech, is it fair to say we’re already mid-rollout?

Laying out the plan

Eric Schmitt
New York Times
He's begun calling the allied leaders around the world, informing him of his decision and some of the details.

ERIC SCHMITT: We are, Ray.

What -- what is happening today, as you described in your report, is the president has put his -- has -- has given his orders to his military commanders and civilian leaders. He's begun calling the allied leaders around the world, informing him of his decision and some of the details. Tomorrow, he will meet with editorial columnists and also leading members of Congress to explain his decision before the nationally televised address Tuesday evening.

RAY SUAREZ: And following that, members of the administration will head up to Capitol Hill?

ERIC SCHMITT: That's right. They will fan out beginning on Wednesday and Thursday. Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff Mike Mullen will all be testifying before the Military and Foreign Affairs Committees in the House and the Senate, providing Congress with the first opportunity to grill the -- the administration officials on the president's policy change.

RAY SUAREZ: From your reporting, is General McChrystal going to get pretty much what he's asked for in the number of additional troops?

ERIC SCHMITT: I think, if you add up the troops that the United States will commit, as well as those that NATO countries are going to commit -- and that's still a work in progress on the latter -- I'm told by senior defense officials that General McChrystal will be more or less satisfied with the number that he believes he needs to do the counterinsurgency campaign that he laid out in his strategic assessment earlier this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, it takes a while to get everybody deployed, doesn't it?

ERIC SCHMITT: It does. It's going to take several months, actually several weeks for the first troops. But the Marines that you mentioned will be going in first early next year to be followed soon after by a number of hundred -- several hundred, perhaps up to 1,000, Army trainers. These will be doing the initial training of Afghan recruits.

And then the recruits will then be put into their units and partnered with American units on the ground. This will be a phased deployment going over the next 12 to 18 months. The troops that you mentioned in your broadcast, up to some 30,000 or so, will be phased in over that time frame.

RAY SUAREZ: Once all those new forces are in Afghanistan, how will that new peak compare to the peak under the Bush administration?

ERIC SCHMITT: It's much greater.

As you said, it will be up close to 100,000 American troops alone. Add on top of that the allied troops that will be there, this will be at least four or five times greater than what -- what the -- the troop levels were for much of the Bush administration.

Plan likely to include benchmarks

Eric Schmitt
New York Times
He's not going to set a specific time frame, a time date to withdraw.

RAY SUAREZ: It's been widely reported that the president is assuring people in Washington that there is not an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. What have you been finding out about the nature of the timetable and the targets for withdrawal?

ERIC SCHMITT: That's right.

He's not going to set a specific time frame, a time date to withdraw, but he is going to make clear that there will be progress, the so-called benchmarks that they will be watching to match progress up against the time that the U.S. has to stay there.

This will be both for the government of Afghanistan and for the government of Pakistan. Both these countries, the administration feels, need to step up and do more, more for their own security in the long term, so that, eventually, the American commitment there in Afghanistan can wind down.

RAY SUAREZ: When similar timetables and targets were proposed earlier this decade for Iraq under President Bush, it was very controversial. Is it turning out to be the same this time, now that the suggestions are being made about Afghanistan?

ERIC SCHMITT: It is. And I think what you will see is, they will be different, in this sense. There won't be firm timetables for troops, for instance, the Afghan -- increasing the number of Afghan soldiers and national police forces. I think they are going to be looking less at trying to hit a target number than ensuring that the new Afghan security forces are a quality and can be deployed in a way that makes sense on the ground.

So, I think there will be a different kind of timetable that the president will announce tomorrow night.

RAY SUAREZ: How does Pakistan figure into this new strategy?

ERIC SCHMITT: Pakistan is crucial. It's obvious there the leadership of al-Qaida was chased out of Afghanistan after 2001 into the tribal areas and the mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so the al-Qaida leadership is there.

Two of the main groups that are conducting attacks in Afghanistan do so out of safe havens in Pakistan. In the last several weeks, the Pakistani army has launched an offensive against some of these militants in this area, which the administration has praised.

But, right now, the administration wants Pakistan to do more, more on the ground against some of these insurgents who use Pakistan as a refuge from which to attack American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

ERIC SCHMITT: You're welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get reaction to the Afghanistan strategy from two military bases later in the program. And, on newshour.pbs.org, we have analysis and on-the-ground reporting from our partner Global Post, an international news Web site.