Obama defends Afghan policy in TV interview

U.S. President Barack Obama said during an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes that he'll know by the end of 2010 if his Afghan strategy is working.

U.S. President Barack Obama said during an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes that he'll know by the end of 2010 if his Afghan strategy is working.

He also pledged in the interview taped Dec. 7 for broadcast on Sunday evening to change direction if the U.S. military is not on course "in terms of securing population centres" from Taliban militants.

The president also said his Dec. 1 speech ordering 30,000 more American soldiers and marines into the eight-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 per cent 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-Qaeda terrorists.

Not true, Obama told 60 Minutes.

"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."

'Transitioning into drawdown phase'

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."

10,000-troop shortfall

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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda after Saddam's ouster. He was a Sunni and his departure pushed the Sunnis from their traditional hold on power.

The first contingent of new U.S. forces, a marine unit, is to be in place by Christmas.