Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Charles Dharapak

It is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers. They took the lives of innocent men, women and children.

These men belonged to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida's base of operations was Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban - a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war.

Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al-Qaida and those who harbored them. For the first time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 - an attack on one member nation is an attack on all.

Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy, we sent our troops into Afghanistan. Within a matter of months, al-Qaida was scattered and many of its operatives killed. The Taliban was driven from power. A provisional government was established under President Hamid Karzai. An international security assistance force was established.

Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. For the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, resources, diplomacy and national attention. Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end.

But the situation in Afghan-istan has deteriorated. The Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaida. They both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq.

When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Shortly after taking office, I approved a request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe-havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian effort.

We have made progress. Al-Qaida and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we have stepped up the pressure on al-Qaida worldwide. Pakistan's Army has gone on its largest offensive in years. In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election. Though marred by fraud, that election produced a government consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution.

Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backward. The Taliban has gained momentum. Al-Qaida retain(s) safe havens along the border. Our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan forces and better secure the population. Our new commander in Afghanistan - General McChrystal - has reported the security situation is more serious than he anticipated.

The status quo is not sustainable.

I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.

Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here new attacks are being plotted. This is no hypothetical threat. In the last few months, we have apprehended extremists within our borders sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backward.

This burden is not ours alone. Since 9/11,

al-Qaida's safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan: We know al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe they would use them.

We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan: We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government.

We will meet these objectives in three ways.

n First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months. The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing will deploy in the first part of 2010 - the fastest pace possible - so they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan forces. I have asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided troops. We are confident that there will be further contributions.

These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011.

n Second, we will work with our partners, the U.N., and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy so that the government can take advantage of improved security.

This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. Going forward, we will support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders (who) combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. We will also focus our assistance in areas such as agriculture that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

I want the Afghan people to understand: America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect to isolate those who destroy, to strengthen those who build, to hasten the day when our troops will leave, and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner and never your patron.

n Third, we will act with the recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

In recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that Pakistani people are endangered by extremism. The Pakistani army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. There is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan built on mutual interests, respect and trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target groups that threaten our countries and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.

These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge and an effective partnership with Pakistan.

There are a range of concerns about our approach.

n First, there are those who suggest Afghanistan is another Vietnam. This argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad popular insurgency. Unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same.

n Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. This would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through and permit a slow deterioration of conditions.

n Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.

By the time I took office, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly

$30 billion for the military this year, and I will work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

As we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people and allows investment in new industry. It will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

And we cannot count on military might alone. We have to invest in our homeland security, because we cannot capture or kill every violent extremist abroad. We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence. We will have to take away the tools of mass destruction. That is why I have made it a central pillar of my foreign policy to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists. We will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone.

Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values. We must promote our values by living them at home - which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

We must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of human rights and tend the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is the moral source of America's authority.

It is easy to forget that when this war began we were united - bound by the fresh memory of a horrific attack and by the determination to defend our homeland. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe we can still come together behind a common purpose.

Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.

Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States of America.

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