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Obama unveils strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan

US President Barack Obama today unveiled his much-awaited new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan with the "clear and focused goal" of destroying the terrorist group Al Qaeda in both countries and prevent their return to either country in the near future.

In a sombre speech at the White House, Mr Obama said the "comprehensive and new strategy" marked the conclusion of a careful policy review that he had ordered as soon as he took office in January this year.

He spoke about the perilous position faced by the US in Afghanistan and the threat that would arise should safe havens for the al Qaeda in Pakistan go unchallenged or should the Kabul government fall to the Taliban again. He also stressed that 2008 was the deadliest year so far in the war against terror.

"The situation is increasingly perilous," Mr Obama said. "The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked."

The US President said intelligence reports had warned that the al Qaeda, said to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was planning more attacks on the US from safe havens in the mountainous border regions of Pakistan.

"For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world. But this is not simply an American problem. The safety of the world is at stake," he said.

"Many people in the United States -- and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much -- have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there? And they deserve a straightforward answer," Mr Obama said.

"So I want the American people to understand that 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. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just," he explained.

The President there was a need for a comprehensive strategy in the two countries, including a "standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Expressing his profound respect for the Pakistani people and their history, Mr Obama pledged that the US would do all it could to help Pakistan fight against the terrorists who have so often attempted to destablilise the country, and had killed so many people, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Similarly, he expressed his admiration for the people of Afghanistan and went on to describe the shift coming on the ground in that country.

"Our troops have fought bravely against a ruthless enemy. Our civilians have made great sacrifices. Our allies have borne a heavy burden. Afghans have suffered and sacrificed for their future. But for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq. Now, we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.

"I've already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops that had been requested by General McKiernan for many months. These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan security forces and to go after insurgents along the border. This push will also help provide security in advance of the important presidential elections in Afghanistan in August," he said.

Mr Obama said the US would simultaneously strengthen the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan where he said the al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups had become a "cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."

He said Washington would step up military assistance to Islamabad to help it fight the al Qaeda and give it more economic assistance in coordination with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

He said the assistance given to Pakistan for years had yielded only "mixed results."

"We will not provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and other violent extremists within its borders," he said.

Mr Obama said the US would shift the emphasis of its mission in Afghanistan to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces so that they could eventually take the lead in securing their country.

"That's how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our own troops home.

"For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. And those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq. Now, that will change. The additional troops that we deployed have already increased our training capacity. And later this spring we will deploy approximately 4,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. For the first time, this will truly resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police. Every American unit in Afghanistan will be partnered with an Afghan unit, and we will seek additional trainers from our NATO allies to ensure that every Afghan unit has a coalition partner. We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 -- and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward," he said.

Mr Obama said this push must be combined with a dramatic increase in America's civilian effort.

"Afghanistan has an elected government, but it is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people. The economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency. The people of Afghanistan seek the promise of a better future. Yet once again, we've seen the hope of a new day darkened by violence and uncertainty.

"So 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. 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. That's also why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations -- an effort that Secretary Clinton will carry forward next week in The Hague," he said.

Pointing out that at a time of a global economic crisis, the President said it was tempting to believe that the US could shortchange this civilian effort. But he The President emphasised that US efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan would fail if it did not invest in the future of the two countries.

He said there would be a new regime of accountability in the execution of this war, beginning with contractors, and stretching to demanding clearly understood goals:

"There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who've taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. And that's why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans -- including women and girls.

"Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals," he said.

Mr Obama said that the US would form a contact group on Afghanistan, involving countries that had a stake in the security of the region, including Iran, Russia, India and China.

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