Obama Would Focus Terror Fight on Afghanistan

Sen. Barack Obama, a leading candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Tuesday he would make Afghanistan the focus of U.S. anti-terror efforts and unilaterally strike terrorist targets across the border in Pakistan if the government of President Pervez Musharraf failed to do so.

In a major policy address delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Obama, who currently trails his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in public opinion polls, sharply criticized President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism campaign, charging that "he is fighting the war the terrorists want us to fight."

"Bin Laden and his allies know they cannot defeat us on the field of battle or in a genuine battle of ideas," he declared. "But they can provoke the reaction we’ve seen in Iraq: a misguided invasion of a Muslim country that sparks new insurgencies, ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name, and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world."

"By refusing to end the war in Iraq, President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what Congress voted to give them in 2002," he added in one of several reminders that Clinton voted to authorize military action – "a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."

Obama also called for doubling U.S. foreign aid and credits to poor countries to 50 billion dollars a year by 2012 in order to "roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate," including two billion dollars for a Global Education Fund to counter "the radical madrasas" in the Islamic world.

The speech comes amid an ongoing squabble between Obama and Clinton – who together hold a clear lead in the crowded field of eight candidates vying for the Democratic nomination – over the advisability of meeting with hostile leaders, such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, without preconditions.

Clinton had denounced Obama’s statement during a debate last week that to do so would be "irresponsible and frankly naïve," a criticism that has since been used by Obama to assail Clinton as "Bush-Cheney lite," a theme he pounded – albeit without naming Clinton – in his remarks.

"It’s time to turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action," he said. "It’s time to turn the page on Washington’s conventional wisdom – that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear."

Both candidates have been harshly critical of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war and voted last week to support legislation that would have required the president to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by Mar. 31, while retaining a residual force to help train Iraqi forces, protect U.S. installations and personnel, and conduct operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), although Obama Wednesday suggested that troops deployed for the latter purpose would be based "in the region," presumably not necessarily in Iraq.

The continued U.S. troops presence in Iraq, he said, actually enhanced al-Qaeda’s appeal and that "[e]nding the war will help isolate al-Qaeda and give Iraqis the incentive and opportunity to take them out."

Bush, he said, has in any case exaggerated the threat posed by AQI while overlooking the "people who hit us on 9/11, who are training new recruits in Pakistan" which, along with Afghanistan in his view, required much greater attention and resources.

"As president, I would deploy at least two additional brigades [or about 6,000 troops] to Afghanistan to reenforce our counterterrorism operations and support NATO’s efforts against the Taliban," he said, adding that he would demand that Washington’s NATO partners do the same.

At the same time, he said he would increase non-military aid to Afghanistan by one billion dollars – about 75 percent more than the Bush administration has requested for 2008.

"As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared," he said. "And today, that security is most threatened by the al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan," which he called "the wild frontier of our globalized world."

In addition to deploying more troops to Afghanistan, Obama called for a much tougher stance on Pakistan.

"As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan," he said.

Moreover, "[i]f we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will," he stressed in a key passage that, according to one analyst, Greg Sargent of Talkingpointsmemo.com, appeared "designed to shore up whatever weaknesses Camp Obama thinks may or may not have been created by the Hillary dustup (over talks with hostile leaders)."

Obama also argued that Pakistan should be pressed both to increase development and social assistance to the border areas that, according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) by the U.S. intelligence community, have become safe havens for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to hold free and fair elections.

He also called for strengthening U.S. military and civilian counterinsurgency capacities and building an "international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks form the remote islands of Indonesia, to the sprawling cities of Africa" to which the U.S. should contribute five billion dollars over three years.

"[T]his effort," he said, "will focus on helping our partners succeed without repressive tactics, because brutality breeds terror, it does not defeat it."

In that connection, Obama said he would "reject torture without exception," observe the Geneva Conventions, close the Guantánamo detention facility, and end illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens.

In addition to doubling non-military aid to developing countries, he said he would also launch new public-diplomacy efforts designed to "make clear that we are not at war with Islam…"

"[T]oo often since 9/11," he said, "the extremists have defined us, not the other way around."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.