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Obama Unveils New Strategy To Defeat Al-Qaeda, Extremism In South Asia

  • Abubakar Siddique

U.S. President Barack Obama spelling out the new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy in Washington.

U.S. President Barack Obama spelling out the new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy in Washington.

(RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has unveiled his administration's fresh strategy for defeating extremists in the face of rising violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including targeted efforts against Taliban and Al-Qaeda "safe havens" in the region.

But he also promised more financial aid, troop deployments, societal development, and regional cooperation to address the complex situation in South Asia.

Obama highlighted transparency, multiliteralism, and accountability as key elements of the plan, which was the result of an extensive strategic review and is being seen as a significant departure from the policies of the Bush administration.

The Afghan government quickly welcomed the major points of the new U.S. plan, particularly its acknowledgement that the battle against international terrorists and militants trying to destabilize Afghanistan is a regional problem.

As if to underscore the deteriorating security situation in the region that prompted the review, the unveiling came in the wake of a suicide bombing that killed at least 50 worshipers during Friday prayers in the Khyber Pass region of western Pakistan.

"The situation is increasingly perilous," Obama said in the U.S. capital. "It's been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on. Insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Attacks against our troops, our NATO allies, and the Afghan government have risen steadily. And most painfully, 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for American forces."

Obama stressed that denying extremists "safe havens" in South Asia remains a key goal of the U.S. efforts.

"Let me be clear: Al-Qaeda and its allies, the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks, are in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Obama said. "Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows Al-Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

Break With Bush Years

In contrast to the policies of the Bush administration, which was seen as heavily reliant on Pakistani military general and President Pervez Musharraf as its key ally in the war on terrorism, Obama indicated that the new policy will focus on supporting that country's fragile democratic institutions.

He repeated his warning that "a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone."

"Al-Qaeda offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction," Obama said. "We stand for something different."

The president then urged Congressional support for a bill sponsored by long-serving Senators John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) that would authorize some $1.5 billion in "direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years, resources that will build school and roads and hospitals and strengthen Pakistan's democracy."

Pakistani writer and analyst Ahmed Rashid, who recently advised Obama special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke as part of Washington's strategic review, suggested in an extensive interview with RFE/RL that the new strategy might raise alarm bells within Pakistan's powerful military establishment.

"Certainly, conditions on that aid will anger the army," Rashid said. "Clearly, there is a lot of anti-Americanism in the army. There is a lot of sympathy for the Taliban. All this has to be balanced out by the army chief. And obviously, American aid is going to play a critical role in that."

While calling on his allies to match U.S. commitments to Afghanistan, Obama announced plans to send 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan -- this on top of an earlier announced "surge" of 17,000 new troops.

Boosting Afghan Efforts

Obama also pledged to train a 134,000 strong Afghan army and 82,000 strong police force by 2011, in keeping with a civilian surge that will focus on societal and infrastructure development.

"To advance security, opportunity, and justice, not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces, we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers," Obama said. "That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs. And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground."

In Kabul, Reuters quoted spokesman Humayun Hamidzada as saying President Hamid Karzai's government "welcome[s] the announcement made by President Obama, and agree with all major conclusions and the main outline of the strategic review."

"We particularly welcome the recognition of the regional aspect of the problem in Afghanistan and specifically recognition that the Al-Qaeda threat is mainly emanating from Pakistan," Hamidzada added.

Afghan presidential contender and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai also praised the new strategy, which comes with a presidential election less than seven months away.

"I welcome the sustained attention given by the Obama administration to Afghanistan, " Ahmadzai said. "The strategy has been carefully researched, and the goals that [the Obama administration has] arrived at take account of the intertwined nature of the regional issues, assign priority to governance, highlight the need for international forces becoming a catalyst for building Afghan institutions, and highlight the need for continued economic development."

Ghani, a former World Bank executive, emphasized that implementing the new strategy will be far more challenging than formulating it.

"The key now is to arrive at implementation arrangements that can allow the type of partnership between the Afghan people and the government and the international community that would regain the trust of the Afghan population and deliver benefits that the population has been longing for and has been seeking."

The sizable, and growing, U.S. military presence in Afghanistan suggests that implementing critical elements of the new strategy could be more difficult across the border in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is battling deep political and societal fissures and it is unclear how much weight U.S. opinion carries, particularly within the influential Pakistani military and intelligence communities.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report