March 27 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama said he is boosting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and increasing aid to Pakistan to defeat al-Qaeda terrorists and other Islamic militants who pose a global as well as regional threat.
“The safety of people around the world is at stake,” Obama said today in announcing the new policy, which puts a greater focus on Pakistan and clearing the border region of militants and terrorists. “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Obama said “multiple” intelligence assessments have found that “al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.”
The new blueprint for rebuilding Afghanistan’s army and turning the corner in the war comes amid increased insurgent attacks and before Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial elections scheduled for August. Across the border, the nuclear- armed Pakistani government is trying to cope with the global economic crisis and attacks by militant groups.
“The situation is increasingly perilous,” Obama said. “Make no mistake: al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”
Aid for Pakistan
Obama said he would support legislation to increase economic and development aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion annually for five years in exchange for that country cracking down on militants.
Pakistan would welcome the prospect of increased U.S. aid because its government is out of cash. Pakistan took a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan in November to avoid defaulting on debts and is seeking another $10 billion from friendly nations at a donor conference next month in Tokyo.
Still, President Asif Ali Zardari faces strong opposition to a closer U.S. alliance. A poll taken before Zardari’s party won elections in February 2008, conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, found only 33 percent of respondents favoring their army “fighting extremists” in the ethnic Pashtun belt where the Taliban and al-Qaeda are based.
More violence erupted today as a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a roadside mosque during Friday prayers in the northern tribal area of Pakistan, killing at least 70, Tariq Hayat Khan, the government’s political agent in region, said.
The administration’s goal is to weaken and ultimately destroy al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries in Pakistan and prevent the terrorist group from returning across the border to Afghanistan.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told diplomats today at a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow that, while Afghan security is “at a delicate juncture” and “conditions have deteriorated in recent months,” more international troops aimed at improving security “will help to secure the electoral environment.”
Obama plans to send 4,000 more U.S. troops, in addition to the 17,000 military personnel he already has ordered to the country, to train Afghan forces to take a bigger role in providing security. All the extra troops are scheduled to be in the country by autumn, according to administration officials.
As of yesterday, 599 U.S. military personnel have died in and around Afghanistan during more than seven years of war, according to Defense Department figures. About three-quarters of the deaths came during hostilities.
More than 2,700 U.S. personnel have been wounded.
The United Nations said 2,118 Afghan civilians died in the conflict last year, the highest tally recorded since the Taliban militia was ousted from power in 2001.
Afghanistan has for six years been denied needed resources because of the war in Iraq, Obama said.
“Now, that will change,” Obama said. “For the first time, this will fully resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police.”
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, welcomed the administration’s plan. A delegation of Afghan government officials that visited Washington last month urged that the U.S. help expand their security forces, strengthen official institutions and improve coordination of development assistance, Jawad said.
“This new strategy took our perspectives into consideration,” Jawad said today in a statement. Another round of talks is scheduled for early May.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told reporters in Karachi that “this is what we have wanted” and “we want to assure the world we will not allow our territory to be used for terrorism.
“We have been saying that military action is not the only solution,” Gilani said. “We hope the people of tribal areas will cooperate with us,” he said, adding “there are only a few who are destroying peace.”
Obama will be discussing the strategy with other leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when he meets with them for a summit April 3-4 on the French-German border. The U.S. has been pressing the allies to shoulder more responsibility in Afghanistan.
Obama called the situation in the region “an international security challenge of the highest order.”
The administration intends to solicit support from nations with a stake in Afghanistan and trying to stem the al-Qaeda threat, including, China, India, Russia and allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia.
The European Union said it may use a March 31 conference on Afghanistan in The Hague to pledge an increase in the 1.6 billion euros ($2.1 billion) it offered between 2002 and 2008.
“None of the steps that I have outlined will be easy, and none should be taken by America alone,” Obama said.
To ensure that Afghanistan upholds its pledges, Obama said the U.S. will forge a new compact with the nation and insist on a crackdown on corruption. The administration also will set out benchmarks to measure the strategy’s progress.
Obama’s civilian and military aides began outlining the new strategy for members of Congress yesterday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued statements supporting Obama’s decision to focus on terrorists in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Wise and Realistic
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the Obama administration’s plan is “wise and realistic” and includes “for the first time a more limited and well-defined end goal for our mission there.”
Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said that while he’s “pleased that the administration is focused on al- Qaeda,” he’s concerned that “the new strategy may still be overly Afghan-centric when it needs to be even more regional.”