WEST POINT, New York - President Barack Obama launched a new chapter in the Afghanistan war Tuesday, committing an additional 30,000 U.S. troops while setting a goal of starting to bring forces home by July 2011.
In a televised speech from the U.S. Military Academy to a nation that waited weeks for his decision, Obama outlined a strategy intended to eliminate al Qaeda in Afghanistan and help the government defeat the Taliban insurgency while bolstering neighboring Pakistan's anti-terrorism efforts.
"As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan," Obama declared in the 35-minute speech. "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."
Facing certain opposition from many in his liberal base at home, Obama cited the security threat to America and its allies to explain the need to increase the number of U.S. troops committed to Afghanistan to nearly 100,000.
He also said he would ask NATO allies to increase the 40,000 troops they have sent to Afghanistan for the U.S.-led mission.
At the same time, Obama included an early date to begin withdrawing forces to signal both the Afghans and fellow Americans that the U.S. commitment would not be endless.
"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," Obama said. "We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.
"But it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
The additional 30,000 troops would begin deploying early next year at "the fastest pace possible," said Obama, who was criticized by conservatives for taking more than three months to decide on the request by his commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for up to 40,000 more troops.
Obama noted that all of the plans presented to him by military leaders, including McChrystal, called for deployment beginning in 2010, "so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war."
McChrystal praised Obama's announcement, saying in a statement that the president provided him with a clear mission and the necessary resources.
"The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the president's address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security," McChrystal said.
On Capitol Hill, the reaction was mixed. Republicans generally supported the deployment of more troops but worried that setting a timeline for beginning to withdraw would signal both allies and enemies of a limited commitment.
"Why would you condition this thing before you start?" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, asked on CNN. Noting the 18-month period between the start of the deployment and the announced date for beginning a withdrawal, Graham wondered whether some U.S. troops "are going to meet each other coming and going."
Democrats were divided, with many opposing the new deployment and threatening to try to withhold funding, while some said they needed more time to study the issue or expressed support. However, it was too early to tell whether Congress would block spending for a troop increase estimated to cost as much as $30 billion a year.
"I disagree with the president's two key assumptions: that we can transfer responsibility to Afghanistan after 18 months and that our NATO allies will make a significant contribution," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a former Republican who became a Democrat earlier this year. "It is unrealistic to expect the United States to be out in 18 months, so there is really no exit strategy. This venture is not worth so many American lives or the billions it will add to our deficit."
In his speech, Obama said the additional U.S. forces bolstered by NATO troops "will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
David S. Sedney, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for central Asia, told CNN the date for beginning to withdraw was based on careful analysis of how soon Afghan forces can assume security responsibilities from foreign troops in various regions.
Three senior administration officials who outlined the strategy said it includes plans to build up the Afghan army to 134,000 troops in 2010 and increase the size of the police force so that the transfer of authority can begin in summer 2011.
Right now, only one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces is under entirely Afghan military and police control, according to CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, who said three senior officials emphasized that a hand-over to Afghan security services in 2011 would likely be possible in only some parts of the country.
Obama said the additional U.S. and NATO forces "will increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight."
"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan," Obama said. "Now, we must come together to end this war successfully. For 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."
Acknowledging the economic crisis at home, Obama said the deployment to Afghanistan "cannot be open-ended, because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."
It is the second increase of U.S. forces in the war-torn Islamic country ordered by Obama since he came to power in January, and Tuesday's announcement occurred nine days before the president goes to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
A Pentagon official acknowledged that Obama's six-month timeline for sending the new troops is "very aggressive" and will be challenging to fulfill, but said the military will successfully carry out the order.
In requesting more troops, McChrystal wrote in August that a "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
Critics of a new deployment say chronic corruption and overall lack of governance make Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government an unreliable partner, dooming the mission.
Obama made clear that Karzai must carry out promised reforms to ensure continued U.S. support for strengthening Afghan civil society.
"The days of providing a blank check are over," Obama said, adding: "We will support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable."
In a message to Afghanistan, Obama said: "We have no interest in occupying your country."
"We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens," Obama said. "And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect -- to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron."
The strategy also focuses on helping neighboring Pakistan in its anti-terrorism efforts, with Obama saying, "there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy."
"We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear," Obama said, in reference to al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, thought to be in hiding in Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border.
"And going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed," the president said.
Obama rejected a comparison between the Afghanistan war and the Vietnam War, which divided America in the 1960s and '70s.
"Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action," Obama said. "Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists, who are plotting along its border."
U.S.-led troops first invaded Afghanistan in response to the al Qaeda terrorist network's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The invasion overthrew the ruling Taliban, which had allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory, but most of the top al Qaeda and Taliban leadership escaped the onslaught.
Taliban fighters have since regrouped in the mountainous region along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, battling U.S. and Afghan government forces on one side and Pakistani troops on the other. Al Qaeda's top leaders, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are suspected of hiding in the same region.
The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 900 Americans and nearly 600 allied troops.