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News | March 29, 2009

U.S. military to 'refocus' on al-Qaida

By Samantha L. Quigley , American Forces Press Service

Army Spc. Andrew Soria scans for possible enemy locations during a patrol in Nishagam, Konar province, Afghanistan, earlier this month. President Obama said his new strategy 'refocuses' American troops' efforts on al-Qaida.
Army Spc. Andrew Soria scans for possible enemy locations during a patrol in Nishagam, Konar province, Afghanistan, earlier this month. President Obama said his new strategy ‘refocuses’ American troops’ efforts on al-Qaida.

WASHINGTON (March 29, 2009) – President Barack Obama said Sunday his new strategy for what he calls “America’s war” is intended to zero in on the heart of the matter at hand in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The focus over the last seven years, I think, has been lost,” the president told Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “What we want to do is refocus attention on al-Qaida."

Obama unveiled his new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review March 27.

“We’re going to go with a strategy that is narrowly focused, that is narrowly targeted on defeating al-Qaida,” he said. “We are going to make sure that they cannot attack U.S. citizens, U.S. soil, U.S. interests, and our allies’ interests around the world.”

This depends, in part, on denying al-Qaida safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It also means making the Pakistani people understand that the “creep of extremism” into their country is the greatest threat to them and the stability of their government, Obama said.

“One of the concerns that we’ve had building up over the last several years is a notion, I think, among the average Pakistani that this is somehow America’s war, and that they are not invested,” he said. “What we want to do is say to the Pakistani people, you are our friends, our allies. We are going to give you the tools to defeat al-Qaida and to root out these safe havens.”

The administration is prepared to help Pakistan grow its economy so it can provide basic services to its people. If Pakistan’s government doesn’t have credibility or is weakened, it will be much more difficult for its people to deal with the extremism within their borders, Obama noted.

“We have to recognize that part of our task I’m working with Pakistan is not just military,” he said. “It’s also our capacity to build their capacity through civilian interventions, through development, through aid assistance.

“That’s part of what you’re seeing – both in Afghanistan and Pakistan – I think is fully resourcing a comprehensive strategy that doesn’t just rely on bullets or bombs, but also relies on agricultural specialists, on doctors, on engineers, to help create an environment in which people recognize that they have much more at stake in partnering with us and the international community than giving into to some of these extremist ideologies,” he said.

In return for the assistance, however, the administration expects much greater accountability, Obama said.

The president also said reports that Pakistani intelligence may be communicating with the Taliban and al-Qaida aren’t new, and just one of the contingencies the United States will face in defeating al-Qaida.

All contingencies can be overcome by combining military, civilian, diplomatic and development approaches, Obama said, if the United States does a better job of coordinating with its allies. Part of the plan includes training the Afghan National Army so it increasingly takes the lead to deal with extremists in the country.

“We realize there are going to be a lot of hurdles between now and us finally having a weakened al-Qaida or destroyed al-Qaida to the point … it cannot pose a danger to us,” he said. “And we will continue to monitor and adjust our strategies to make sure that we’re not just going down blind alleys.”

Shifting to talk of Iraq, Obama said despite the current situation in the country, the plan put forward is the right one; a very gradual withdrawal schedule through the national elections in Iraq.

“There’s still work to be done on the political side to resolve differences between the various sectarian groups around issues like oil … [and] provincial elections,” he said. “I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction, but Iraq is not yet complete.”

Closer to home, the president doesn’t see the drug fighting in Mexico as an “existential threat,” but said it is a serious threat to U.S. border communities.

“[Mexican] President [Felipe] Calderon, I think, has been very bold and rightly has decided that it’s gotten carried away,” Obama said. “The drug cartels have too much power, are undermining, and [are] corrupting huge segments of Mexican society.”

With some threat to U.S. interests, namely the communities on the Mexican border, the president is considering putting National Guard troops on the borders. But before that happens, he’ll wait and see if some of the other steps already taken will quell the violence.