WASHINGTON - In what marks a significant escalation in U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Barack Obama Friday outlined what he called a "comprehensive, new strategy" for the two countries to fight al Qaeda and its local allies.
Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pentagon chief Robert Gates, Obama said he will send 4,000 U.S. troops to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces in addition to the 17,000 combat troops that he approved for deployment last month, bringing total U.S. military forces there to some 60,000 by the end of the summer.
He also plans a "dramatic increase" in the number of U.S. civilian officials working in Afghanistan to promote improved governance and economic development there and intends to ask Washington's NATO partners to match U.S. efforts in that regard. He said Washington will also back a "reconciliation process in every province" designed to persuade the Taliban's foot soldiers to renounce the group.
For Pakistan, Obama announced his support for legislation pending in Congress that would triple non-military aid - to 1.5 billion dollars for each of the next five years - and provide trade preferences for exports from key conflict zones in both countries.
He also promised increased military aid to Pakistan's Army, conditioned on its "commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders... (W)e will not provide a blank cheque," he stressed.
At the same time, he suggested, Washington reserves the right to take unilateral action - presumably in the form of Predator drone or other strikes - against specific targets operating in the tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistani border. "(W)e will insist that action be taken - one way or another - when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets," he said.
Obama's speech marks the culmination of a two-month review overseen by a former top South Asia analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Council (NSC), Bruce Riedel, on what candidate Obama last year referred to as "the central front in the war on terror," or what has come increasingly to be called "AfPak."
U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned over the past two years both about advances made by the Taliban and radical Islamist groups allied to it in the predominantly Pashtun areas on both sides of the two countries' borders, as well as the continued de facto safe haven enjoyed by al Qaeda in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where, Obama said, it "is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland..."
The announcement came just days before two key meetings where Washington hopes to gain critical international and regional support for its strategy.
The first, to be convened by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will take place Mar. 31 at The Hague, and will seek commitments by states in the region, including Iran, as well as traditional donors and agencies, for stabilising and reconstructing Afghanistan. The U.S. delegation will be headed by Clinton and Obama's special representative on "AfPak", Amb. Richard Holbrooke.
That will be followed by the annual NATO Summit Apr. 3-4 in France and Germany, where Obama himself is expected to lobby other NATO members, who supply most of the 30,000 that make up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to maintain or increase their troops commitments to ISAF or, in cases where governments have already decided to draw down their forces, to contribute to Washington's "surge" of foreign civilian expertise in Afghanistan.
The U.S. also sent an observer to Friday's meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Moscow where Afghanistan was expected to be a central issue.
Washington's involvement in all these meetings underlines the new administration's view that the growing insurgencies in "AfPak" and al Qaeda must be seen as a regional problem, a point repeatedly stressed by Obama Friday, notably when he promised to work with the United Nations to "forge a new Contact Group [at The Hague] for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region - our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations, and Iran; Russia, India and China."
In his remarks, Obama defined Washington's goal in "AfPak" narrowly, specifically "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."
But achieving that goal will require a "stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy," he stressed, that, in effect, is far more ambitious, relying as it does, on both increasing U.S. troop strength and an aid programme to, among other things, double the size of the Afghan army to some 134,000 by 2011; tackle "the booming narcotics trade" through agricultural development and other efforts; and reduce corruption for which the government of President Hamid Karzai has been increasingly criticised here and in Afghanistan.
"To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq," Obama declared in one of several scarcely veiled criticisms of the failure of the George W. Bush administration to follow up its success in evicting the Taliban from power in late 2001 with a strategy and the resources needed to prevent its comeback.
The ambitiousness of the strategy - essentially to stabilise the politics and economy of two large and historically fractious countries - reflects the apparent victory of those inside the administration who argued that Washington should go beyond a "counter-terrorist" (CT) strategy narrowly focused on eliminating the threat posed by al Qaeda, in major part by capturing or killing its leadership wherever it can be found. Rather, they have urged a "counter-insurgency" (COIN) strategy designed to provide security and other basic needs to the civilian population in order to dry up its base for recruitment and support.
According to various published reports, Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg argued for the narrower strategy, while Clinton, Holbrooke, Riedel, and several Pentagon officials, including Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus - who implemented COIN strategy in Iraq - and the new undersecretary of defence for policy, Michelle Flournoy, argued much more was needed.
On Pakistan, Obama's commitment to condition military aid on the army's demonstrated commitment to pursue COIN against al Qaeda and its local allies marks a major shift from the Bush administration, which provided Islamabad with some 10 billion dollars of military aid since 9/11, almost all of which was spent on conventional weapons for possible war with India. Obama stressed that Washington would "pursue constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan."
But whether Obama would follow through on canceling the aid if the Army does not meet the conditions remains to be seen, according to most analysts here. Just this week, the New York Times, for example, reported that operatives from Pakistan's military intelligence agency have continued to provide support to Taliban commanders in spite of repeated promises by the civilian-led government and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pavez Kayani, that such ties have been broken. At the same time, the Army has reportedly cooperated with U.S. missile strikes against suspected Taliban and al Qaeda targets, although it has publicly condemned them.
"The toughest part of this is going to be to get the Pakistanis to do what they need to do," said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official at the Centre for American Progress.
Most lawmakers on Capitol Hill Friday rallied around the strategy despite the proposed 50-billion-dollar price tag for the expanded effort in Afghanistan alone over the next year and a half. "President Obama's new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is realistic and bold in a critical region where our policy needs rescuing," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.