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Analysts Agree Obama’s Afghan Plan Is Strong, But Some Question Timeline

BY Larisa Epatko  December 2, 2009 at 9:30 AM EDT

U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

President Obama on Tuesday outlined an approach to the Afghan war that will involve sending 30,000 more troops on an expedited mission to help secure Afghanistan and prevent a safe haven for al-Qaida in Pakistan.

Although the president did not say where the additional troops would go, it is generally expected that they will head to Kandahar and Helmand in the south — both considered hotbeds of Taliban activity — and to Khost in the east, where fighters have strong ties to al-Qaida, said Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War.

“Thirty thousand is a lot of combat power,” she continued, “and it will make a difference.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, had reportedly recommended 40,000 more troops. Currently, there are about 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces in the country.

President Obama also established a clear in and out point for the additional forces, saying they would deploy “at the fastest pace possible” in early 2010 — in order to accelerate the handover of security to Afghan forces — and begin leaving in July of 2011.

The intended purpose of the troop surge, besides training Afghan security forces, is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and to provide the Afghan government time and space to increase its capacity.

Accomplishing these objectives within the 18-month period will be no easy feat, observed retired Col. David Lamm of the National Defense University, who was chief of staff of Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005.

“If I were sitting in General McChrystal’s shoes, I would say the next 18 months are going to be very busy,” he said.

In the Tuesday speech, delivered at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., President Obama also stressed the connection between success in Afghanistan and U.S.support of Pakistan’s democracy and development, in order to dislodge al-Qaida sanctuaries.

“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,” he said.

However, Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, said President Obama did not go far enough to explain the link between increasing the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan and stabilizing Pakistan.

“The U.S. has an awkward problem with Pakistan in that substantial parts of its government actually favor the Afghan Taliban achieving political primacy in Afghanistan as a buffer against incursions by India,” he said. “The Pakistan military differentiates between Pakistan Taliban and Afghan Taliban, but the U.S. blurs them.”

But Lamm took note of President Obama’s use of the term “vital national interest” when explaining his decision to send more troops, along with his specific mention of Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and the need to keep them out of the hands of extremists.

“The stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them,” the president said.

In arguing his case, President Obama emphasized that since the threat of terrorism extends beyond the United States, he was seeking further contributions, such as additional forces, from its allies.

With the help of the United Nations and the Afghan people, the United States will work to shape a civilian strategy that helps bolster the Afghan government, he said. But the effort must be “based on performance.”

“The days of providing a blank check are over,” Mr. Obama said, citing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration promise to tackle corruption in the government as sending the right message.

The United States has a lot of leverage in Afghanistan, according to Kagan, which she said should be used constructively to ensure that at the end of the process a legitimate, capable Afghan government exists.

But, she added, it’s also important to ensure that the handover of security responsibilities to Afghans only proceed when conditions on the ground allow it, including a diminished level of violence and a capable Afghan security force — a caveat the president made in his speech as well, she said.

The establishment of an 18-month timeframe could add some leverage in the near term over the Afghan government, said Clemons, in addition to mollifying Americans who are skeptical of the war.

But the defined timeframe also could feed the sentiment in some countries that America will not be engaged in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the long run, he added.

In addition, setting the 18-month marker, rather than providing Afghans a more discreet deadline, might give the adversary a chance to adjust its own strategy accordingly, warned Lamm.

And while the U.S. urges the Afghan government to be a reliable partner, “if you’re an Afghan, you might look to 2011 and think it’s not a lot of time and you may wonder, ‘so who’s the reliable partner?’,” he said.