President Barack Obama says he'll know by the end of 2010 if his Afghan strategy is working, and pledges to change direction if the U.S. military is not on course "in terms of securing population centers" from Taliban militants.
The president also says his Dec. 1 speech ordering 30,000 more American soldiers and Marines into the 8-year-old war "hit me in the gut" emotionally more than any he had given.
After doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan in March, just two months after taking office, Obama raised the stakes further by ordering a nearly 50-percent troop increase in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He issued the orders even as support for the war was crumbling among the public and opposed by many fellow Democrats in Congress.
Many observers said Obama appeared overly analytical and emotionally detached in ordering still more Americans into an increasingly violent mission against the Taliban to prevent their takeover of the Afghan government and a feared return of al-Qaida terrorists.
"Not true," said Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes," in an interview taped Dec. 7 for broadcast Sunday night.
"You know, that was actually, probably, the most emotional speech that I've made, in terms of how I felt about it," the president said, "because I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back."
Obama also answered critics who saw ambiguity in ordering the big troop increase while then saying some of them probably would begin coming home in July 2011. That's the date when U.S. military forces plan to start handing security responsibility to Afghan soldiers and police who would undergo intensive recruitment and training.
"We then start transitioning into a drawdown phase," Obama repeated, noting that specifics were conditional. "How many U.S. troops are coming out, how quickly, will be determined by conditions on the ground."
And he gave himself a loophole.
"If the approach that's been recommended doesn't work, then yes, we're going to be changing approaches," he said. Obama quickly added that the deadline was necessary to alert the Afghan leadership that the United States was not going to make Afghanistan an American "protectorate."
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, agreed to the mission of securing the population, saying success would mean "over time they (the Taliban) become irrelevant and ineffective."
McChrystal had sought 40,000 additional troops for the war. Obama eventually settled on 30,000 after an intensive three-month study of the mission and how best to achieve goals. Most of the shortfall between what McChrystal sought and what Obama approved was expected to be made up from U.S. NATO allies and other countries that have sent forces to the conflict.
Obama and McChrystal said the idea was to mimic — to some extent — the Bush administration's troop increase in Iraq that deflated the Sunni insurgency there by bringing many of its fighters into the U.S. fight to de-fang the al-Qaida forces. The terrorist organization moved into the country after the United States invaded and removed Saddam Hussein from power.
Many Sunnis, the minority Muslim sect in Iraq, had joined forces with al-Qaida after Saddam's ouster. He was a Sunni and his departure pushed the Sunnis from their traditional hold on power.
The president also once again put Pakistan on notice that it was going to have to do more against its own Taliban militants and al-Qaida.
The organization's leader, Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants and many fighters fled to the largely ungoverned and mountainous regions of Pakistan after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"In order for us to eradicate the problem, to really go after al-Qaida, in an effective way, we are going to need more cooperation from Pakistan," Obama said. "There is no doubt about that."
The U.S. has been fighting to kill bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders and fighters by using unmanned missile-armed drone aircraft inside Pakistan. The Pentagon has never acknowledged the drone program.
As he was questioned about upping the ante in Afghanistan, Obama also took a swipe at the Bush administration for invading Iraq on the mistaken suspicion Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq mission vastly diminished U.S. resources available in Afghanistan.
"One of the mistakes that was made over the last eight years is for us to have a triumphant sense about war," Obama said. "There was a tendency to say 'We can go in. We can kick some tail. This is some glorious exercise.' When, in fact, this is a tough business."
The first contingent of new U.S. forces, a Marine unit, is to be in place by Christmas.