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Afghanistan Strategy Must Focus on al-Qaida, Obama Says

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2009 – The fight in Afghanistan must be narrowed to its original intent of stamping out al-Qaida and hunting down Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama said today.

“We’re there because al-Qaida killed 3,000 Americans and we cannot allow extremists who want to do violence to the United States to be able to operate with impunity,” Obama said this morning on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

The president appeared on a handful of news talk shows this morning, all taped in the White House on Sept. 18. He answered a broad range of questions on topics ranging from health care to the economy and to the war in Afghanistan.

The president acknowledged what he called “mission creep” in Afghanistan where the United States is tied up in missions there that are not directly tied to defeating al-Qaida. He said there is a better chance of finding and killing bin Laden if the mission is refocused and the overarching strategy is bent on defeating al-Qaida.

Any request for more troops will be weighed against this strategy, he said.

“There’s a natural inclination to say if ‘I get more then I can do more.’ But right now the first question is ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy,” Obama said in an interview with CNN’s State of the Union.

Obama recently received an on-the-ground assessment by newly appointed U.S. Forces Commander Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal that has remained classified. There are reports that the general may ask for more troops, but Obama said he has not received such a request.

Before he commits any additional troops, Obama said he wants a new strategy in place. This will come as the administration weighs in the outcome of the Afghanistan election review, as well as a resource request expected from McChrystal in the next few weeks.

“If by sending young men and women into harm’s way we are defeating al-Qaida, and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me … then we do what is required to keep the American people safe,” the president said on ABC. “You don’t make decisions about resources before you have the strategy right.”

Obama was questioned by a couple of the reporters about a possible timeline in the new strategy. The president said that the new strategy would need clear benchmarks of success.

On CBS’ Face the Nation, Obama said that rebuilding the government in Afghanistan, and working with the government of Pakistan, are both critical elements of securing Afghanistan, but at the core of the strategy should be efforts to “dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida.”

“The only reason I send a single young man or woman in uniform anywhere in the world is because I think it’s necessary to keep us safe,” he said. “Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, and then we’ll figure out how to resource it. We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think that by sending more troops we’re automatically going to make Americans safe.”

Obama called the war in Afghanistan “complicated terrain,” and he said any strategy would be reviewed every six months to ensure it was on the right track.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, the president said he did not have a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but that he did not believe in an indefinite military presence in the country.

Obama said that any continued military efforts in Afghanistan should align with the overall national security interests of the United States.

“How does this advance America's national security interests? How does it make sure that al-Qaida and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland, our allies, our troops who are based in Europe? That's the question that I am constantly asking because that's the primary threat that we went there to deal with,” he said.

If supporting the Afghan national government and helping build capacity for their army advances that strategy, then the United States will move forward, Obama said.

“But if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way … sending a message that America is here for the duration. I think it's important that we match strategy to resources,” Obama said.

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