WASHINGTON — President Obama will unveil his long-awaited Afghanistan strategy in a prime-time address from West Point, N.Y., on Tuesday, the White House said Wednesday, but the administration's advance remarks have sparked concern that talk of an eventual U.S. withdrawal will encourage Islamist insurgents to persevere.
During the speech, "The president will want to walk through his decision-making process and give people a sense of the importance of our efforts, but reiterate for them that... (he) does not see this as an open-ended engagement," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "Our time there will be limited, and I think that's important for people to understand."
In a sign that the insurgents may think they can outlast the U.S. and its allies, hours after Obama on Tuesday declared that he intended to end the war during his presidency, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ruled out a political settlement and said his Islamist movement would "gain strength with the passage of time."
In a statement posted on a Taliban-run Web site, he also urged Afghans to join the fight against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
"The foreigners have occupied the land of the Afghans by... might and savagery. If they want (a) solution of the issue, they should put an end to the occupation of Afghanistan," said Omar, who's thought to be based in neighboring Pakistan. "The invading Americans want mujahedeen to surrender under the pretext of negotiation. This is something impossible."
Besides a military buildup, officials have said, Obama's plan contains "off-ramps," points starting in June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of additional troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress.
A former senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said that the success of Obama's plan will depend on whether the insurgents, ordinary Afghans and the country's neighbors see it as a declaration of resolve or a plan to end the U.S. military engagement in the country, now in its ninth year.
"If this is simply the Americans sketching out a road map for their departure, then it's game over," said the former senior U.S. commander, who requested that he not be further identified so he could speak more freely. "We are sending an awful lot of mixed signals at best."
Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who's advised Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that Obama appears to be trying to give the military enough additional troops without jeopardizing congressional funding from his own party.
Biddle says that's not necessarily a sign of weakness or an attempt to please everybody.
"Part of the job description of grand strategist is, you have to sustain public support for the war-making effort," Biddle continued."... If Barack Obama chooses a troop count and strategy that induces the progressive wing to bolt and the war to be defunded, in two years we will lose this war, and that will have been bad military strategy."
Gibbs indicated that Obama's plan would include benchmarks to measure political progress and possibly time scenarios for a U.S. withdrawal, but he declined to discuss specifics ahead of the speech.