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U.S. Unveils Afghanistan Review


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama today unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. During an address at the White House, the president sought to explain America's purpose in the region.

President BARACK OBAMA: We have a clear and focused goal - to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: To that end, Mr. Obama announced that he will increase the number of U.S. troops and civilians, as well as funding for operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: In announcing a new strategy, President Obama set an ominous tone, saying the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was perilous and that last year was the deadliest for American forces since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. Mr. Obama laid out a comprehensive plan that calls for defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban, bringing security to the Afghan people and help building civil society there.

The president committed an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to train and advise Afghanistan's security forces with the aim of doubling the number of the country's army and its police force within three years. Paula Newberg with Georgetown University says that's very ambitious.

Dr. PAULA NEWBERG (Georgetown University): It may be too good to be true. It's not eminently clear that you can suddenly put in this kind of personnel and money and magically create the army and police force that you want.

NORTHAM: John Nagl, a retired army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security, said it does take time to build troop loyalty to the government, but Nagl believes the president's plan will work.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): For the first time ever in our entire commitment to Afghanistan, we are putting our money where our mouth is with reference to the training of the Afghan National Army. Foreign forces can help, but it's local forces that are your exit strategy in any counter insurgency campaign.

NORTHAM: The new strategy calls for hundreds of civilians and diplomats to be dispatched to Afghanistan to start tackling some of the inherent problems there, including corruption, narcotics, economic development, problems made even more challenging by the deteriorating security situation. Kai Eide, the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, says although the U.S. is spearheading a huge new approach, it shouldn't forget it is still the Afghans' country.

Ambassador KAI EIDE (U.N. Chief, Afghanistan): And there we also had to make sure that it is not the U.S. implementing its way, other European countries their way, it must be based on the joint Afghan plan because they know best what the requirements on the ground are.

NORTHAM: During his address, Mr. Obama reminded NATO and European allies that any major terrorist attack in Asia, Europe or Africa would have ties to al-Qaida, and he'll likely push that message home when he meets with NATO leaders in a week's time. But there is a growing collective fatigue among members of NATO and the European Union leery of committing more civilian or military personnel, says Georgetown's Paula Newberg.

Dr. NEWBERG: The Europeans have done an enormous amount, and NATO has done a great deal without concentrated U.S. effort in the last several years. So if they are fatigued, it's from having tried to do what the Americans are now finally acknowledging that they want to do.

NORTHAM: A large component of the new strategy focuses on Pakistan, a new bipartisan bill would authorize $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan every year for the next five years to boost its economy, build democratic institutions and help it to battle Islamist militants in the regions along the border with Afghanistan. Mr. Obama made it clear that this time the Pakistani government will be held accountable.

Pres. OBAMA: We will not and cannot provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaida and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken one way or another, when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.

NORTHAM: The administration wants better relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as other regional players, Iran and China included, that have a stake in seeing stability. Juan Zerate, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Bush administration, says the challenge is each neighbor in the region has its own agenda.

Mr. JUAN ZERATE (Former Counterterrorism Advisor): There may be a presumption of common interest in all of this and at the surface that may be the case, but under the surface there are conflicting national interests across the board, and I think that's always going to be a problem.

NORTHAM: But the president made it clear today that this is a process in the works and that his administration will be flexible if it sees one part of the strategy isn't working.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.