Obama says he’ll know by 2011 if war plan a success

Dec. 1 speech on Afghan strategy ‘hit me in the gut’

US army soldiers shielded themselves yesterday from swirling dust generated by a Chinook CH-47F transport helicopter in Paktya province in Afghanistan. US army soldiers shielded themselves yesterday from swirling dust generated by a Chinook CH-47F transport helicopter in Paktya province in Afghanistan. (Reuters/ Zohra Bensemra)
By Steve R. Hurst
Associated Press / December 14, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama said in an interview yesterday that he will know by the end of 2010 if his Afghan strategy is working, and pledges to change direction if the US military is not on course “in terms of securing population centers’’ from Taliban militants.

The president also said his Dec. 1 speech ordering 30,000 more American soldiers and Marines into the 8-year-old war “hit me in the gut’’ emotionally more than any he had given.

After doubling the US force in Afghanistan in March, just two months after taking office, Obama raised the stakes further by ordering a nearly 50-percent troop increase in a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He issued the orders even as support for the war was crumbling among the public and opposed by many fellow Democrats in Congress.

Many observers said Obama appeared overly analytical and emotionally detached in ordering still more Americans into an increasingly violent mission against the Taliban to prevent their takeover of the Afghan government and a feared return of Al Qaeda terrorists.

Not true, Obama told CBS’s “60 Minutes,’’ in an interview taped for broadcast last night.

“You know, that was actually, probably, the most emotional speech that I’ve made, in terms of how I felt about it,’’ the president said, “because I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back.’’

Obama also answered critics who saw ambiguity in ordering the big troop increase while then saying some of them probably would begin coming home in July 2011. That’s the date when US military forces plan to start handing security responsibility to Afghan soldiers and police who would undergo intensive recruitment and training.

“We then start transitioning into a drawdown phase,’’ Obama repeated, noting that specifics were conditional. “How many US troops are coming out, how quickly, will be determined by conditions on the ground.’’

“If the approach that’s been recommended doesn’t work, then yes, we’re going to be changing approaches,’’ he said. Obama quickly added that the deadline was necessary to alert the Afghan leadership that the United States was not going to make Afghanistan an American “protectorate.’’

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, agreed to the mission of securing the population, saying success would mean “over time they [the Taliban] become irrelevant and ineffective.’’

McChrystal had sought 40,000 additional troops for the war. Obama eventually settled on 30,000 after an intensive three-month study of the mission and how best to achieve goals. Most of the shortfall between what McChrystal sought and what Obama approved was expected to be made up from NATO allies and other countries that have sent forces to the conflict.

Obama and McChrystal said the idea was to mimic - to some extent - the Bush administration’s troop increase in Iraq that deflated the Sunni insurgency there by bringing many of its fighters into the US fight to de-fang the Al Qaeda forces. The terrorist organization moved into the country after the United States invaded and removed Saddam Hussein from power.

In Afghanistan yesterday, Britain’s prime minister tried to smooth relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and renew Britain’s commitment to the war despite its unpopularity back home.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would ship helicopters, equipment, and roadside-bomb-surveillance devices, along with 500 reinforcements he recently announced will join 9,500 British troops deployed mostly in southern Afghanistan. Regions of Afghanistan are at the “epicenter’’ of the global terrorist threat, Brown said, defending his decision to sent more British forces to war.

Brown recently sharply criticized the Afghan leader, saying that Britain would not continue risking the lives of its soldiers to defend a corrupt government. But in a news conference in Kandahar province, he refrained from confrontation.