March 23, 2009 —
WASHINGTON, March 23, 2009 — President Barack Obama called his decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan the toughest so far in his presidency, but said last night the mission there is critical to protecting the United States and its interests.
The top priority in Afghanistan is “making sure that al-Qaida cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies,” Obama said during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
That requires a multifaceted, highly focused strategy that he said goes beyond military power. "What we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems,” he said. “So what we’re looking for is a comprehensive strategy.
“We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan,” he continued. "We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies.”
In doing so, the president said, the United States “can’t lose sight of what our central mission is: the same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11.” The United States “cannot tolerate” allowing extremists the ability to project violence against U.S. citizens, he said.
Part of the Afghanistan strategy being developed must include an exit strategy, the president said. “There’s got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."
“We need to be careful what we’re getting ourselves into in Afghanistan,” Obama said, warning that the United States has come to be considered an occupying force by many Afghans as well as Pakistanis. “I’m very mindful of that, and so is my national security team. So is the Pentagon,” he said.
“Afghanistan is not going to be easy in many ways,” he said. “And this is not my assessment. This is the assessment of commanders on the ground.”
The Iraq war was easier than what the coalition is facing in Afghanistan, Obama said. Iraq’s terrain is less daunting, its population more educated, and its infrastructure more developed. In addition, “Afghanistan has proven to be very hard to govern” historically, he continued, and contends with destabilizing issues on its border with Pakistan.
“And so this is going to be a tough nut to crack,” he said. “But it is not acceptable for us to simply sit back and let safe havens of terrorists plan and plot."
Obama called sending more troops to Afghanistan “the right thing to do,” but conceded that it was a “weighty decision” because he made it while the strategic review of Afghanistan operations is still under way.
“When I make a decision to send 17,000 young Americans to Afghanistan, you can understand that intellectually,” he said. “But understanding what that means for those families, for those young people when you end up sitting at your desk, signing a condolence letter to one of the family members of a fallen hero, you’re reminded each and every day at every moment that the decisions you make count.”
Turning the conversation to his plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama said the United States has to come up with a better alternative to deal with suspected terrorists.
“I think we’re going to have to figure out a mechanism to make sure that they not be released and do us harm — but do so in a way that is consistent with both our traditions, sense of due process international law,” he said.