From NBC's Athena Jones
The future of Afghanistan is "inextricably linked" to the future of Pakistan, President Obama argued today as he announced a sweeping new policy toward Afghanistan that will include more troops for the country and more aid for its increasingly unstable neighbor.
In stern, forceful language, the president sought to make the case to the American people -- and to the world -- that the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a shared responsibility that would require a sustained international effort to go after Al Qaeda and to help with economic development in the region.
"For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world," he said. "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."
Obama has already ordered 17,000 additional troops be sent to Afghanistan this year and today he announced that an additional roughly 4,000 troops would be sent to help train Afghan security forces. He also called on Congress to pass two bills -- one that would provide $1.5 billion a year for five years to build schools, roads and hospitals in Pakistan; and another that would create "opportunity zones" in border regions to develop the economy.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama argued that Afghanistan was the central front in the war on terror, and that the situation in the region had deteriorated because resources that had been diverted to the war in Iraq.
The struggle in this mountainous -- sometimes lawless -- part of the world presents a complicated challenge to the Obama administration, and some critics have expressed concern this new policy could represent an unending commitment.
A perilous quagmire?
"I regret that President Obama, in his desire to protect our nation from a genuine threat, has outlined a policy that will undermine our security, not enhance it," said Win Without War's National Director Tom Andrews in a statement. "We want to be able to support the president and his efforts to protect the American people from the threat of al Qaeda. But the policy announced today will fail to do so and instead takes a significant step toward a perilous quagmire."
Obama acknowledged that the road ahead would be long and tough, but he insisted that America would "not blindly stay the course" and would instead set clear standards for measuring progress in the region.
The president was joined by Bruce Reidel, who headed the policy review, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed to serve as special representative to both countries. Also in attendance were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, General David Petraeus, several Afghan women, diplomats, and members of the military.
Obama called Al Qaeda and its allies a "cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within," and he said intelligence estimates had warned the group was actively planning attacks on the United States from its safe haven in Pakistan. He argued that failure in the region would be a threat to nations across the world, reminding them that attacks in London, Bali, North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan were tied to Al Qaeda.
"To the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you," he said, though he insisted America would not give Pakistan a "blank check" and that it must show a willingness to root out Al Qaeda and other extremists.
The administration white paper added that America must overcome a "trust deficit" in the two countries, where many people believe the U.S. is not a reliable long-term partner. Obama's policy for the region calls for a "standing, trilateral dialogue" among the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to be led by Clinton and Gates.
In the speech this morning, the president said a return to Taliban rule would doom Afghanistan, but he also stressed that America had no wish to control the country or dictate its future, even as it sought to strengthen its democracy and fight corruption.
April's NATO summit in Europe will give Obama a chance to sell member countries on his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy and seek the kind of international help he believes is crucial. In a statement this morning, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, asked NATO and other major donors to support the new plan with resources.
Reaction from the Hill
Republicans like New York Rep. John McHugh, the top GOPer on the House Armed Services Committee, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican of the Foreign Relations Committee, came out in support of the new policy.
In separate statements, McHugh called on Congress "to ensure the strategy is fully funded, resourced and executed." Lugar, meanwhile, called Afghanistan a "a crucial test for NATO and the international community" and said Obama's policy properly focuses on aid to civilians and economic development.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also supports the strategy, which he termed a surge -- a loaded word given Obama's frequent insistence during the campaign that the surge in Iraq had reduced violence but had not achieved its goals politically.
"I commend the president's announced strategy for Afghanistan today, which includes a surge of forces and a renewed commitment to dismantling Al Qaeda and combating the Taliban," McConnell's statement read in part. "Republicans are supportive of these national objectives and will work with the administration to develop policies to secure greater cooperation from the government of Pakistan to rid the tribal areas of terrorist sanctuaries."
On the Democratic side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the new policy "the right plan to stabilize Afghanistan and to protect the American people." But Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who is a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, expressed concern that the new policy might be too narrowly focused and should be even more regional.
Feingold's statement said he was pleased the new strategy included benchmarks for progress, an emphasis on fighting corruption in the Afghan government and increased assistance to civilians, but said a larger effort was needed in Pakistan. "The proposed military escalation in Afghanistan, without an adequate strategy in Pakistan, could make the situation worse, not better," he said.