By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 28, 2009 - President Barack Obama called decisions to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan "the most important, most sobering" he makes, and said in a Pentagon Channel interview aired today his biggest responsibility to the troops is to ensure he "gets it right." "My main goal is to make sure any time we are deploying our men and women in uniform that the civilian leadership has done everything it needs to do to make the best decision possible," Obama said after yesterday's troop talk at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Obama said he authorized a 17,000-troop increase in Afghanistan because "all of us believe the situation has deteriorated somewhat there."
More troops will help address increasingly brazen attacks by Taliban and other extremists, particularly in the southern regions of Afghanistan. "We want to make sure we have the force necessary to meet that," Obama said.
"I think that because you are going to see that additional engagement, there is a risk of greater additional casualties in the short term, just as there was in Iraq," he conceded. "That is something we will have to monitor very carefully."
But with the troop increases, Obama said there's also a need for a more comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan. "I also think we have got to refine our goals and our strategy more effectively," he said. "I think in Afghanistan, we have seen that strategy drift."
"My most important job as commander in chief is to make sure that if we are sending folks there, we have a well-thought-out strategy, clear goals, and that they are achievable, and that I can marshal and maintain the strongest support possible from folks back home," he said.
Military power alone can't solve Afghanistan's problems, Obama said. "We are not going to win in Afghanistan or get an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan if we are only depending on our military," he said.
Also needed, he said, is an Afghan government that delivers for its people, an economic development strategy that offers farmers an alternative to growing heroin poppies and support from Pakistan to clear out border areas where Taliban and al-Qaida have found safe havens.
"My goal is to have a comprehensive strategy of not just force, but also diplomacy and development that is all working in concert to get the kind of outcome we want," Obama said.
Turning the conversation to Iraq, Obama said the timeline he has set for drawing down troops sends a "very strong, clear signal to the Iraqis" that they need to take on more responsibility for their own security.
Meanwhile, he said, it also underscores "that we mean it when we say that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force in Iraq."
The plan to draw down combat troops by August 2010 provides "a glide path" toward a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011, as established in the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.
The Aug. 31 target date will keep sufficient U.S. troops in Iraq during the Iraqi elections, he said. After that, 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq to provide logistical support, training, force protection and some counterterrorism strike capability.
These numbers will phase down over 18 months to the end of 2011, depending on ground conditions at the time, he said.
"I think it's a responsible plan that meets our objectives, and it is one that was created in close consultation with our military commanders on the ground," he said.
The force reduction in Iraq will free up troops not just for the Afghanistan mission, but also for other strategic requirements elsewhere in the world, Obama said. "It's a big world out there," he said. "And right now we don't have the kind of strategic capability that we should to meet other emergency situations that might arise."
Obama acknowledged the "enormous burden" the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put on the troops and their families. The drawdown in Iraq, along with plans to increase the Marine Corps and Army force structure, will help increase dwell time at home between deployments and eventually help do away with the unpopular Army "Stop Loss" policy, he said.
The president expressed gratitude to the men and women in uniform who he said protect the freedoms all Americans enjoy.
"I carry them in my mind every single day when I am making decisions," he said. "When I am thinking about troop deployments, when I am thinking about budgets, when I am think what our foreign policy is going to be, uppermost in my mind is understanding that young men and women are willing to offer up their last full measure of devotion to this country.
The least they can expect is that their president is going to get it right and keep them in mind when he is making decisions."