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Afghan War To Get More US Troops: Sources

BEN FELLER   03/27/09 08:03 PM ET   AP

Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Widening war in "the most dangerous place in the world," President Barack Obama launched a fresh effort Friday to defeat al-Qaida terrorists in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, defending his strategy with shades of the dire language of George W. Bush.

Stirring echoes of Sept. 11 and making the war his own, Obama warned that al-Qaida is actively planning attacks on the United States from secret havens in Pakistan. He said he was setting new benchmarks and sending in 4,000 more troops, hundreds of civilians and increased aid for a six-year war that has seemed to be easing in Iraq but still has no end in sight.

"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," Obama said. "That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just."

The president, who declared last weekend an "exit strategy" was needed for Afghanistan, never used those words in announcing his plans on Friday. His strategy is built on an ambitious goal of boosting the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011 _ and greatly increasing training by U.S. troops accompanying them _ so the Afghan military can defeat Taliban insurgents and take control of the war.

That, he said, is "how we will ultimately be able to bring our troops home."

There is no timetable for withdrawal, and the White House said it had no estimate yet on how many billions of dollars its plan will cost.

The essence of Obama's strategy is to set clear goals for a war gone awry, to get the American people behind them, to provide more resources and to make a better case for international support. He is heading next week to a NATO meeting in France and Germany, where he expects allies to pledge more help of their own.

Much like Iraq, the war effort in Afghanistan has been longer and costlier than American leaders expected.

U.S.-led forces toppled the militant Taliban government there after the terrorist attacks on America in 2001, but many militants fled and regrouped in neighboring Pakistan. Obama said that Afghanistan will now get the resources it should have received years ago, "denied because of the war in Iraq."

Since becoming president, Obama has ordered 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, counting 17,000 combat forces who will try to quell surging violence. The Pentagon says that will put the U.S. total there at more than 60,000, the most to date. As the Iraq conflict winds down, the Afghanistan war is growing.

Taking firm control of the war that dominated Bush's presidency, Obama broke with his predecessor in significant ways but also used phrases that sounded strikingly familiar.

He described the ruthlessness of the enemy, the need to take on terrorists, the genesis of the fight. Bush often reminded the nation that terrorists were plotting to kill Americans, even as the public fear dissipated with each passing year after the 9/11 attacks.

"I remind everybody, the United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan," Obama said. "Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives."

He tied Afghanistan and Pakistan together as one conflict, pledging regular three-way diplomacy with both countries and intensive outreach to the world for help in the region. He pledged to send in 4,000 forces to train the Afghan army and police force. He is sending in hundreds of U.S. civilians _ agricultural specialists, educators and engineers _ to help a poor, broken country try to build itself up from the provincial level.

The president promised that the U.S. will hold itself and others accountable by using benchmarks, although those measures are just starting to be shaped.

And showing the frustration of many in American government, Obama spoke bluntly about the leadership of the government it is trying to help.

He said Pakistan must no longer expect a "blank check" for its U.S. aid and must be willing to take on extremists within its borders. He suggested that the U.S. would strike terrorist targets in Pakistan if the country did not do so itself, saying he will insist that action be taken "one way or another."

On Afghanistan, he said the U.S. would not "turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in the own leaders."

Obama's review capped two months of extensive consultations between his team, Capitol Hill and foreign governments. He did not call Bush.

The former president often decried what he-called artificial timelines for pulling troops home from Iraq. In this case, Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan plan, said it deliberately does not have timelines, to ensure flexibility. "We're not going to impose artificial constraints," he said.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai embraced the additional help his country will get to train its army and police force.

Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani said it was "an extraordinarily positive sign that the Obama administration is thoroughly re-examining its policy toward our region."

The reaction from leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill was largely positive, although some lawmakers remain deeply skeptical of Pakistan's cooperation.

The Pakistani government has been more concerned by what it views as a greater threat to its existence, longtime rival India, with which it has fought three wars in the past six decades. And the Pakistani central government has relatively little control in some areas, tolerating or even ignoring Taliban and al-Qaida havens inside Pakistan.

The man Obama defeated for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said he welcomed Obama's revamped strategy as long overdue. "The war there is one that we can and must win, but for years now we have been fighting without a clear strategy and with insufficient resources," McCain said.

But McCain also said the president erred by not committing to sending in additional combat brigades as requested by the military commander on site. He said "we cannot fail in Afghanistan due to a lack of troops" and pushed Obama to be candid to the public that the war will cost more lives and money.

Much of the security build up in Afghanistan this year is meant to provide security for fair, stable elections there in August.

"We've been on a path since 2006, 2007, 2008, where violence has gone up," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We add these troops, violence is going to go up in 2009 because we're engaged more. That said, we've got to have a year this year, I believe, that stems that violence."

Obama, too, warned of tough days ahead. He said al-Qaida, its allies and probably its leader, Osama bin Laden, were plotting in the Pakistani frontier.

"For the American people," Obama said, "this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world."

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Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.

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Filed by Katharine Zaleski  |