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U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, along with Afghan National Army soldiers, search a compound in Lakari in Helmand province on Nov. 21.
updated 11/30/2009 5:46:26 PM ET 2009-11-30T22:46:26

Afghan officials hope President Barack Obama's address on Afghanistan won't be weighted too heavily on an exit strategy — even though that's the message many Americans and Democrats in Congress want to hear.

If he talks extensively in his speech Tuesday night about winding down the war, Afghans fear the Taliban will simply bide their time until the Americans abandon the country much as Washington did after the Soviets left 20 years ago. That move plunged the nation into civil war and paved the way for al-Qaida and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Similarly, in neighboring Pakistan, too much talk of a finite U.S. troop presence gives commanders little reason to help fight Afghan militants — the very people they might eventually need to embrace as allies if the international community fails to secure Afghanistan and the Taliban retake Kabul.

From the Pakistani side of the volatile border, the fear is that a premature U.S. pullout would leave Pakistan vulnerable to an unchecked threat from Islamic extremists, who now control significant areas of the northwest.

"If the Americans leave the war unfinished — without stabilizing Afghanistan — it is bad for Pakistan," Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal areas, said Monday. "Obama should announce a change of strategy that moves away from force to stabilization ... so that people will stop going to the Taliban in search of security."

So while Obama needs to reassure the American public that Afghanistan will not become his Vietnam, that message might be best muffled in the battle zones.

"Mentioning an exit strategy at the height of fighting is premature," said Hamid Gailani, majority leader in the Afghan parliament. Gailani hopes Obama's expected military buildup will be accompanied by a political plan that fosters economic development for his impoverished nation.

"If he speaks of a surge on the one hand and of an exit strategy on the other hand, it will not make any sense to people," Gailani said.

Countering propaganda
However, there is a case to be made for Obama to emphasize that U.S. forces aren't going to be in Afghanistan forever. That message could serve to undercut the argument of hardcore militants who lash out against foreign occupiers — and use it as a recruitment tool. It also could perhaps strengthen Afghan efforts toward reconciliation with some members of the Taliban, who say they won't negotiate until foreign forces leave.

"I think the insurgency has been very, very skilled at propaganda and I think that they will inevitably use the announcement of an increase in troop levels to make the case again and again that we're an occupation, that Karzai is a puppet," said Caroline Wadhams, senior national analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress think tank. "That's why I think it's so important that we continue to talk about how we're not going to be there forever."

On the other hand, Afghan officials worry that political pressure in the United States might encourage Obama to pull out before the Taliban have been seriously weakened.

Much of the relative success of the Iraq surge was that it changed perceptions — convincing both insurgents and government leaders alike that the U.S. would stay as long as it took to achieve its goals. That emboldened many Iraqi Sunnis to break with al-Qaida — a move that was a turning point in the war.

Afghans have a historic aversion to foreign occupation, but the repressive Taliban have little appeal to Afghans outside the rural areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. Still, Afghans tend to back whomever is winning.

Unpopular war
When Obama rolled out his first strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, nearly 700 U.S. service members had been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Now, eight months later, that number has grown to at least 845.

Back in the spring, Obama deployed an extra 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. When he delivers his national address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he's expected to announce an increase of up to 35,000 more.

To win backing for the unpopular war, the White House has punctuated its message with talk about exit ramps.

Last week, Obama said he wanted to "finish the job." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said recently, "We are not going to be there another eight or nine years."

Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is giving hints, albeit privately, about a possible endgame.

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado, said this week that during his visit to Kabul, he asked McChrystal: "If you get these troops that you are requesting, the 40,000, where's the tipping point? At what point will we begin to draw down?" According to Coffman, McChrystal responded: "Sometime before 2013."

A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul did not dispute the congressman's characterization of his conversation with McChrystal, but cautioned that the nature of the chat was purely speculative.

Setting milestones
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been talking about ways to exit, too. In announcing an international conference on Afghanistan Jan. 28 in London, Brown on Saturday handed Afghan President Hamid Karzai a page of "milestones on which he's going to be judged."

Besides stepping up training and deployment of Afghan security forces, reducing corruption and appointing local leaders, Brown stated that by the end of next year, the Afghan government should have trained another 50,000 troops and must take control of at least five districts from the NATO-led force.

"I hope we will see this process happening in a way that people can feel more secure, that side-by-side with the British troops, the Afghans are taking responsibility for themselves so we can look forward to a time in the future — there is no timetable at the moment — when Afghan forces can take responsibility in new areas and British forces are able to come home."

That's not reassuring to many Afghans in places like Helmand province in southern Afghanistan where Taliban influence is strong.

"We are not at the stage when international forces can leave Afghanistan," said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand. "For now, we're talking about international forces who are coming. Helmand is one of the provinces where terrorists and drug dealers and the Taliban are destroying security."

It's not that Ahmadi doesn't want U.S. forces to leave eventually. He spoke enthusiastically about how the Afghan government has approved a new seventh corps of the Afghan National Army — Corps 215 Maiwand — to be based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah where the first fresh U.S. troops are expected to arrive. Brown has said that the Afghans have vowed to deploy 5,000 members of the new Afghan army corps to Helmand, to be partnered by British troops next year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama to outline Afghanistan 'endgame'

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama to outline Afghanistan 'endgame'

    >>> begins now.

    >>> good evening. the order went out last night to the u.s. military . over time another 30,000 americans will be heading to afghanistan . tomorrow night, the president using west point instead of the west wing as a backdrop, will explain his decision to the country, the result of months of deliberations. it's as serious as the presidency gets, sending america's treasure to a battlefield overseas. they have all volunteered for duty. now they are part of a growing u.s. military commitment in afghanistan , and it's just one issue after all of this white house is dealing with. our chief white house correspondent chuck todd will start us off tonight. chuck, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. while the president's own chief of staff calls this an historic week in what's already an historic year. the president is attempting to tackle two issues that have undone presidencies before, war and the economy. and it begins tomorrow night at west point when the president unveils his plan for the war in afghanistan . the president's decision more than doubles the number of troops in afghanistan when he took office ten months ago. at an oval office meet late sunday afternoon, the president officially gave military orders to top military commanders to send approximately 30,000 more u.s. troops to afghanistan . that brings the total to more than 100,000 troops. when he took office, there were fewer than 40,000.

    >> nobody should underestimate the commitment of a president that has thus far doubled the number of american men and women on the ground in afghanistan .

    >> reporter: in a 30 to 40-minute primetime address tuesday night, the president will explain, the mission, it remains unchanged. to dismantle and destroy al qaeda and prevent the taliban from creating a safe haven in the afghanistan /pakistan region. the end game -- specifically, what benchmarks the pakistan and afghanistan governments have to meet, including ramping up afghan forces so u.s. forces can stand down. and the costs -- aides say he won't avoid the details though how hard it is to find the $30 billion to fund this surge. mr. obama in an nbc interview two weeks ago --

    >> this decision, will it be the decision that ultimately enz the war?

    >> this decision will put us on a path towards ending the war.

    >> reporter: the president's challenge is to reassure the public the war will end soon, while reassuring the world that the u.s. won't leave afghanistan too soon.

    >> i'm not sure you can square that circle. the real question here is whether his plan will work, and more than that, whether his plan will work fast enough.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, the rest of the president's week is an attempt to zmon straight to the public he's focused on the growing unemployment problem so he's organizing a day-long job summit for thursday.

    >> this is a double barrel week. it is the two biggest challenges he's facing, the war in afghanistan and a job situation that just won't go away.

    >> reporter: brian, beyond selling this war to a skeptical public, he also has to explain how he's going to pay for this war. expect secretaries gates and clinton, when they head to capitol hill on wednesday and thursday, to get an earful from members of congress who want to know where are you going to find this $30 billion?

    >> chuck todd , starting us off on this monday night at the white house . chuck, thanks.

    >>> the president, again, will address the nation from west point tomorrow night, 8:00 eastern time , 5:00 pacific time . of course, we'll be carrying it live here on this nbc station.

    >>> police in washington state are

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