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February 20th, 2009
04:12 PM ET

Getting the Afghanistan message right

President Obama wants to add troops and increase aid to Afghanistan.
President Obama wants to add troops and increase aid to Afghanistan.

Adam Levine
CNN Supervising Producer

A funny thing happened as the White House tried a relatively low-key approach to announcing that it was adding 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The military didn’t seem to be on board with the message.

The announcement by the Obama administration contrasted with how the Bush administration announced both its increase of troops in Iraq, the “surge,” and even a later addition of troops to Afghanistan last year. Both of those announcements were made in a speech from then president George Bush.

But the new administration was stuck – it knew it needed to get troops to Afghanistan to satisfy the immediate need to stabilize things, but it also knew it was not ready to announce what its strategy for Afghanistan was. You see, the administration has a review underway for a new, comprehensive strategy that looks at both the military and diplomatic needs for the war.

So the Obama White House chose instead to make the announcement at the end of a day dominated by coverage of President Barack Obama's signing of the multi-billion dollar stimulus package. The announcement came out late afternoon via Pentagon leaks and then a four-paragraph email(subject line: “Statement by the President on Afghanistan”), and outlined a 50% increase in troops to Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials told Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr that the troop levels would be needed for at least another three-to-four years. But a White House official spun back to our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry, telling him it unclear whether the troops will be there a minimum of three to four years.

“That would prejudge the outcome of the strategic review,” the senior administration official said of the total review of all aspects of the war that has been ordered by the President.

Get it? They might be needed for the rest of the president’s first term, but don’t want say it just yet.

But then the same discord repeated itself the next day.

The top commander in Afghanistan was in town to brief the Pentagon press about the plan. His opening remarks, he made clear his appearance was not an orchestrated effort to announce the troop plans.

"I know you probably think this is - I'm in Washington to coincide with the president's announcement yesterday, but, believe it or not, I'm here for a two-day Army conference and it just happened that timing lined up," General David McKiernan said.

While he said he was 'very delighted" with the announcement, he also said he expects the increased force levels to be needed for the "the next three to four to five years."

"So it'll be several years of that kind of force level?," re-asked the reporter.

"It could be as much as that," McKiernan replied.

But Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to press Thursday night, was still not willing to put a timeline on it.

"The timelines and the goals remain to be seen as a result of the strategic review," Gates, who was appointed to stay on in his role as defense secretary by the new president said.

Why the difference. The answer lies, perhaps, in the statement released announcing the increase.

"This troop increase does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review," the statement said. "Instead, it will further enable our team to put together a comprehensive strategy that will employ all elements of our national power to fulfill achievable goals in Afghanistan."

The White House does not want the troop increase to be seen as a telegraphing of the ongoing review. But military commanders, like Gen. McKiernan have their own agenda. Politics aside, McKiernan seemed to be giving his own take on Afghanistan, signaling that he needs his troops. He need them for a number of years.

The official review is expected near the end of March.


Filed under: Adam Levine • Afghanistan • Pentagon • President Barack Obama
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Mike, Syracuse NY

    Sounds like a 'surge' to me. Now where have we seen that work before? So where's all that anti-war outrage? Why aren't they crying for a timetable?

    February 21, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  2. Larry L.

    Have any of the Democrats that are making these military decisions ever served our country by actually being in a combat military position,or are they all like Obama–never even served and have no experience at all???

    February 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm |
  3. Elina

    Clearly, the question should be: Do the Afghans want foreign troops there in the first place? If not, increasing troops will only result in more violence and lost lives, both American and Afghan. Increasing troops won't solve the decades old problem. Stopping violence would require identifying the real sources of the problem and efforts to find a lasting solution through political dialogue.

    February 21, 2009 at 12:31 pm |
  4. Jim

    I sometimes ask myself, if people really know why we are in Afghanistan in the first place. It is not about oil. It is not about making Afghanistan the 51st state. It is about removing a terrorist organization that is a constant threat to not only our livelihood, but a menace to the very existence of the Afghan people. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on this big blue planet, and as long as they are suppressed by a terrorist organization such as the Taliban, they will never be able to develop into a nation of free people.

    There have been only a few success stories in our very brief history, which Americans can look in retrospect and say, yes, we did something good here. We actually accomplished the mission. World War I, World War II and Korea are the best examples. Where we did pretty well was the former Yugoslavian Republic, in conjunction with a sizeable coalition. Where we did not perform in such an admirable manner was Vietnam. With that, let us not allow our efforts in Afghanistan fall short of actually finishing the job. Our troops are witnessing the improvements being made in Afghanistan and have also vocalized their desire to finish the job.

    There is still a very long road to travel before we can high-five one another for our successes in Afghanistan. Let us be patient and stay the course so we may truly be able to say, “Mission Accomplished”.

    February 21, 2009 at 10:59 am |
  5. Bashir bisi

    What mr president intends to do is a thoughtful plan on best way to tackle terror.Muslim&islam's folklore show that no foreign troops has been able to tame the spirit behind jihad in afghanistan.My candid advice is that a comprehensive approach involving the deployment of troops coupled with aid to afghan poor citizens.Thats is pivotal to win the support of locals.Obama is aware of previous russian mess in that mountaneous country.The war should be massive&decisive.Osama&his foolish suicide bombers should be dispatched.Muslims&islam isnt all about war we want peace. Bashir ,nigeria.

    February 21, 2009 at 9:44 am |
  6. J.V.Hodgson

    You medis can find a way to be negative about everything.Lol
    "STUCK"? Sending 17,000 troops does not seem to me to be someone who is "stuck"
    He has consistenly said more troops are needed ( the military want 30,000 in total + more ex EU) and that any overall policy must include diplomatic efforts and Holbrooke has been getting that part understood and clear. Meantime the 17,000 troops may stop the current military situation from getting worse than it needs to be.
    Finally Obama is right not to lead the annoucement until the review you mention is complete.
    Or if you prefer it's Bush style war, war, war and Ideological / religious based priciples and insufficiently considered action.
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    February 21, 2009 at 1:50 am |
  7. Carmen

    Well said Rose it's all just a big hypocracy.

    February 21, 2009 at 12:00 am |
  8. Candia

    Why do people wonder that there is little objection from Democrats to these plans? Haven't they been listening to what Obama said during the campaign? He has been stressing his intention to send troops to Afghanistan all along. Of course anti-war people are not happy about it, but's it's not as if this is something that comes as a surprise, or a flip-flop, or anything. Apart from that, I agree with the latter half of Annie Kate's comment.

    February 20, 2009 at 8:15 pm |
  9. Rose from NY

    I find it interesting that this article was posted at 4:12 p.m. and there is only 1 comment. Had Bush made this decision, the boards would be now be flooded with negative comments.

    No doubt Obama the candidate, and Obama the President have different viewpoints given the highly sensitive information he is now privy to. It's easy to criticize and judge the other guy before you walk in his shoes.

    February 20, 2009 at 6:33 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    It will be interesting to see what is decided by the review on how many are needed and for how long. It will also be interesting to see how Obama supporters who wanted us out of the area react to the President getting us out of Iraq just to send us to Afghanistan instead. I hope at least they have clear goals that have to be reached to be able to determine when we are done and can finally come home and that these goals are communicated to the US voters.

    February 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm |