U.S. President Barack Obama has told a group of military veterans that the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan will not be quick or easy but that the war is necessary to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.
Obama spoke to the audience of 5,000 U.S. members of Veterans of Foreign Wars and their families in Arizona just days before Afghans go to the polls for provincial and presidential elections in an atmosphere of escalating Taliban violence.
He defended his decision to send more 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and said "the insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight," and will not be defeated overnight, adding, "this will not be quick. This will not be easy."
He said his administration's new Afghan strategy "has a clear mission and defined goals -- to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies." And Obama warned that "if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
"We must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity," Obama said. "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."Support Waning
Since coming into office in January, Obama has ordered 21,000 additional troops to the country, bringing the total to 62,000. In coming months, that figure will reach 68,000 -- double the number from six months ago -- and analysts believe that top U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal will eventually request more.
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that such a request would be granted.
We must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.
As Obama's new war strategy rolls out, however, Americans are losing their taste for battle. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll shows that public support for the war is dropping. More than half of Americans -- 54 percent -- now say they oppose the war in Afghanistan, a shift that could be a result of the public's anticipation of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.
In Arizona, Obama repeated his vow to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by this time next year and bring out all remaining troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
"As we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments. And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy," he said. "We will begin removing our combat brigades from Iraq later this year. We will remove all our combat brigades by the end of next August. And we will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And for America, the Iraq war will end."Escalating Violence
In Afghanistan, violence has escalated
in the run-up to elections. A massive suicide bomb attack on August 15 outside NATO headquarters near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul killed seven Afghans and wounded almost 100 others. Forty-four American soldiers died in Afghanistan in July alone, and the death toll among British troops just passed 200.
Obama acknowledged the surge in deadly attacks but assured the veterans that military tactics are swiftly adapting to enemy ways and troops are being given the supplies they need to win the fight. And he said U.S. and NATO troops are playing a key role in the August 20 elections.
"In recent weeks, we've seen our troops do their part. They've have gone into new areas, taking the fight to the Taliban in villages and towns where residents have been terrorized for years," Obama said. "They're adopting new tactics, knowing that it's not enough to kill extremists and terrorists. We also need to protect the Afghan people and improve their daily lives. And today, our troops are helping to secure polling places for this week's election so that Afghans can choose the future that they want."
An estimated 17 million Afghan voters will go to the polls on August 20 to elect a president for only the second time in their country's history. They will also elect 420 local officials in 34 provinces.
President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, leads the race, but former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is putting in a strong challenge.
The Associated Press reported that about a dozen people carrying guns, including one with a military-style rifle slung over his shoulder, milled among protesters outside the convention center where Obama was speaking. Arizona is an "open-carry" state, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public as long as it's visible.
Last week, during a public appearance by Obama in New Hampshire, a man stood outside with a pistol strapped to his leg. He told a local newspaper that it was "a political statement."