By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 1, 2009 - Typically at this time of year, much of the focus at the U.S. Military Academy revolves around playful antics leading up to the big annual Army-Navy game. But tonight, West Point, N.Y., will be the epicenter of a much more serious issue: the way ahead in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama will travel to the oldest U.S. service academy, perched high above the Hudson River, to unveil his strategy to bring security to Afghanistan and eliminate terrorist safe havens that threaten the region and the world.
Emphasizing the need to provide the strategy and resources he said had been lacking since the United States went into Afghanistan, Obama said during a late November news conference his plan will provide what's needed to succeed and bring the U.S. mission there to an end.
"It is my intention to finish the job," he said. "And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, they will be supportive."
Regardless of the exact details of Obama's decision, it's expected to have a profound impact on its most immediate audience: thousands of Army officers in training at the U.S. Military Academy who will be called on to carry it out.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will accompany the president to West Point for tonight's address, last visited the academy in May to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2009. Those 970 graduates, all now second lieutenants, have since moved on to officer basic course training, and in many cases, to operational units around the world, including Afghanistan.
Gates praised the graduating members of the "Long Gray Line" for volunteering to serve their country when it needs them most, despite the risks. "You made your decision to serve knowing not only that America was at war – as did every man or woman who joined the military after September 11th – but that this war would be bloody and difficult, of indefinite length and uncertain outcome," he told them. "In doing so, you showed courage, commitment, and patriotism of the highest order."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a National Guard conference in late November he's been gratified that discussions leading up to the president's decision reflected a clear recognition that the best solution in Afghanistan goes beyond military might.
"This isn't all just about the military. This isn't all just about the number of troops, because we can't do it alone," he told the group. "We have to have the security side of this – that is the necessary side. But ... you have to have a development plan. You have to have a governance plan that goes hand-in-glove [with the security effort] as we move forward."
Mullen said he's been satisfied by the depth and breadth of the discussions as the team addressed the full range of challenges in Afghanistan and made its recommendations to the president. The long-awaited decision followed numerous in-depth discussions among the president's national security team, with heavy input from military commanders on the ground.
"It's been a ... very healthy discussion, very open to different views, and that really has been, from a process standpoint, very good," Mullen said.
Obama's announcement of those details tonight will represent another page in West Point's long history that dates back to the Revolutionary War. Gen. George Washington considered West Point one of the most important strategic positions in America, and transferred his headquarters there in 1779.
Since the U.S. Military Academy's founding in 1802, its 50,000 graduates have include Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, is a 1974 West Point graduate.