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Obama: Afghanistan not lost, remains challenge

Liz De La Torre

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From The Associated Press

WEST POINT, N.Y. – President Barack Obama says the war in Afghanistan is not lost as he announces he will send another 30,000 U.S. troops to fight it.

Obama on Tuesday said the first new U.S. forces will join the fight by Christmas. Obama also said the first U.S. forces will begin coming home in July 2011.

Speaking to the nation from the U.S. Military Academy, Obama acknowledged Afghanistan has moved backward and huge challenges remain. Obama said the Taliban has gained momentum and al-Qaida has safe-havens along the border with Pakistan.

Obama has spent three months in an intensive review of the U.S. strategy for an eight-year war that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into the long war in Afghanistan on Tuesday night, and told an impatient American public he hopes a gradual withdrawal can begin within 18 months.

In a prime-time address from the U.S. Military Academy, the president said the additional forces would be deployed at “the fastest pace possible so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers.” Excerpts of his remarks were released in advance.

It marked the second time in his young presidency that Obama has added to the American force in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has recently made significant advances. When he became president last January, there were roughly 34,000 troops on the ground; there now are 71,000.

Obama’s announcement drew less-than-wholehearted support from congressional Democrats, many of whom favor a quick withdrawal. Others have already proposed higher taxes to pay for the fighting.

Republicans reacted warily, as well. Officials said Sen. John McCain, who was Obama’s Republican opponent in last year’s presidential campaign, told Obama at an early evening meeting attended by numerous lawmakers that declaring a timetable for a withdrawal would merely send the Taliban underground until the Americans began to leave.

As a candidate, Obama called Afghanistan a war worth fighting, as opposed to Iraq, a conflict he opposed and has since begun easing out of.

A new survey by the Gallup organization, released Tuesday, showed only 35 percent of Americans now approve of Obama’s handling of the war; 55 percent disapprove.

In speech excerpts released in advance by the White House, Obama said a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be executed “responsibly taking into account conditions on the ground.”

“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,” Obama said.

The president also leaned heavily on NATO allies and other countries to join in escalating the fight.

“We must come together to end this war successfully,” he said. “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.”

The speech before an audience of cadets at the military academy ended a three-month review of the war, triggered by a request from the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, for as many as an additional 40,000 troops. Without them, he warned, the U.S. risked failure.

The length of Obama’s review drew mild rebukes from normally amiable NATO allies. There was sharper criticism from Republicans led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the president was dithering rather than deciding.

In advance of the speech, senior officials said Obama intended to underscore his commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and scouring corruption out of the government of President Hamid Karzai. Obama has vowed to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization.

Most of the new forces will be combat troops. Military officials said the Army brigades were most likely to be sent from Fort Drum in New York and Fort Campbell in Kentucky; and Marines primarily from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

They said the additional 30,000 troops included about 5,000 dedicated trainers, underscoring the president’s emphasis on preparing Afghans to take over their own security. They added the president is making clear to his generals that all troops, even if designated as combat, must consider themselves trainers.

These aides said that by announcing a date for beginning a withdrawal, the president was not setting an end date for the war.

But that was a point on which McCain chose to engage the president at a pre-speech meeting with lawmakers before Obama departed for West Point. “The way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving,” McCain said later.

Obama’s address represents the beginning of a sales job to restore support for the war effort among an American public grown increasingly pessimistic about success — and among some fellow Democrats in Congress wary of or even opposed to spending billions more dollars and putting tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers and Marines in harm’s way.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and liberal House Democrats threatened to try to block funding for the troop increase.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs a military oversight panel, said he didn’t think Democrats would yank funding for the troops or try to force Obama’s hand to pull them out faster. But Democrats will be looking for ways to pay for the additional troops, he said, including a tax increase on the wealthy although that hike is already being eyed to pay for health care costs. Another possibility is imposing a small gasoline tax that would be phased out if gas prices go up, he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans said that setting a timetable for withdrawal would

If the timeline for the troop increase holds, it will require a costly logistical scramble to send in so many people and so much equipment almost entirely by air. It will also probably require breaking at least an implicit promise to some soldiers who had thought they would have more than 12 months at home before their next deployment.

At the same time, 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. Indications were the allies would agree to a number somewhere in that range. The war has even less support in Europe than in the United States, and the NATO allies and other countries currently have about 40,000 troops on the ground.

Late Monday, the president spent an hour on a video conference call with Karzai. On Tuesday, he contacted Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and, aides said, planned to speak of a need to help Pakistan stabilize itself from the threats it faces not only from al-Qaida but Taliban forces that are increasingly behind terrorist bombings in that country.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States.

Bin Laden and key members of the terrorist organization were headquartered in Afghanistan at the time, taking advantage of sanctuary afforded by the Taliban government that ran the mountainous and isolated country.

Taliban forces were quickly driven from power, while bin Laden and his top deputies were believed to have fled through towering mountains into neighboring Pakistan. While the al-Qaida leadership appears to be bottled up in Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal regions, the U.S. military strategy of targeted missile attacks from unmanned drone aircraft has yet to flush bin Laden and his cohorts from hiding.

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Obama: Afghanistan not lost, remains challenge