WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Barack Obama, in a defining moment of his presidency, announced he would deepen the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, sending 30,000 more troops to fight the Taliban despite Americans’ growing pessimism about the war.
Obama tempered the buildup by pledging that the first troops would return by July 2011 and stressing that Afghan forces would be rapidly trained to take over the fight. He also called for additional commitments from U.S. allies and pledged to strengthen ties with Pakistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have been based.
The troop buildup will begin almost immediately — the first Marines will be in place this month — and will cost $30 billion for the first year alone. Following previous troop increases, it will almost triple the force Obama inherited on taking office in January.
“I do not make this decision lightly,” he said. “I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The long-awaited, nationally televised speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was a political gamble for Obama, whose popularity has fallen as he struggles to win support for a health care overhaul and deal with rising unemployment and a soaring budget deficit.
Republicans said that setting a timetable for withdrawal demonstrates weakness.
“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 John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Obama’s rival in last year’s presidential race.
But the speech was also bound to unsettle the liberal base of Obama’s Democratic Party. Obama won the party’s nomination partly because of his steadfast opposition to the Iraq war — a conflict he took pains to distinguish from the fight in Afghanistan.
In pledging to pull some troops out in July 2011, Obama did not say how many would be left and for how long.
War opponents fear the United States will be dragged into an endless conflict that divides the nation, undermines the economy and wrecks a presidency that began with huge expectations. Comparisons have been made to President Lyndon Johnson’s experience with Vietnam. In his speech, Obama pointedly rejected the analogy as “a false reading of history.”
But a withdrawal would also be risky for Obama. If the Taliban toppled President Hamid Karzai, Obama would be blamed for the return of a government that provided a haven for the al-Qaida terrorists that plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. U.S. officials fear that anti-American militants everywhere would be emboldened and that nuclear-armed Pakistan might be endangered.
“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards,” Obama said. “There’s no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum.”
He said his new policy was designed to “bring this war to a successful conclusion,” though he made no mention of defeating Taliban insurgents or capturing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The size and speed of the troop increase will put a heavy strain on the U.S. military, which still maintains a force of more than 100,000 in Iraq and already has 68,000 in Afghanistan.
NATO diplomats said Obama was asking alliance partners in Europe to add 5,000 to 10,000 troops to the separate international force in Afghanistan. Obama did not mention specific numbers in his speech, but said he was confident there would be new contributions within weeks.
“What’s at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility. What’s at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world,” he said.
Obama deliberated for three months after receiving a request from his top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops. Republicans accused Obama of dithering; Democrats contrasted his methodical approach to what they considered to be hastiness of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
During that time, support for Obama’s Afghanistan policies has fallen. A survey by the Gallup organization, released Tuesday, showed only 35 per cent of Americans now approve of Obama’s handling of the war; 55 per cent disapprove.
In eight years of war, 849 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan, according to the Defence Department.
Ahead of the speech, Obama looked to build up international support, discussing his strategy with other world leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
On Wednesday, he will send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates to congressional hearings to promote the plan.
While some liberals have threatened to block funding for more troops, it is unlikely that Democrats would use such a blunt instrument against their president. But Democrats have talked about new taxes to pay for the war’s costs.
McChrystal is also expected to appear before Congress soon. In a statement from Kabul, he said: “The Afghanistan-Pakistan review led by the president has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task.”