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US goals in Afghanistan modest yet difficult, Obama says

Officials predict higher death tolls

By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / August 2, 2010

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WASHINGTON — As the war in Afghanistan faces a loss of public and congressional support and US casualties rise sharply, the Obama administration is painting its goals for the war as humble and achievable while warning there is no quick fix.

“Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy,’’ President Obama said in a television interview that aired yesterday.

“What we’re looking to do is difficult — very difficult — but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is: Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity,’’ Obama said in an interview broadcast by CBS’s “Sunday Morning.’’

“That can be accomplished,’’ Obama said. “We can stabilize Afghanistan sufficiently and we can get enough cooperation from Pakistan that we are not magnifying the threat against the homeland.’’

“If I didn’t think that it was important for our national security to finish the job in Afghanistan, then I would pull them all out today,’’ the president said. “Because I have to sign the letters to these families when a loved one is lost.’’

In the interview, the president also said he is giving himself a grade of “incomplete’’ for his presidency because the economy has yet to fully rebound. But he said he has a pretty good track record, including preventing a complete collapse of the economy, saving the financial markets, and the auto industry, and passing the health care law.

July was the deadliest month for US forces in the nearly nine-year Afghan war, with 66 troops killed. Military officials predict the toll will be even higher for several months to come, as US, NATO, and Afghan forces intensify fighting in Taliban-controlled areas.

The troop surge Obama ordered last year was meant to make that expanded fight possible, but it also guaranteed higher combat deaths and a renewed focus on whether a war that remains a stalemate is still worth fighting.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that only a small number of US forces will come home next summer, when Obama has said he will begin phasing out the US combat mission in Afghanistan.

A large number of US forces will remain past the start of that drawdown, Gates said, and he gave no estimate for when all US forces might leave.

Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used television interviews yesterday to try to reassure Afghan and Pakistani leaders that the United States will not abandon the fight.

“I think we need to reemphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011,’’ Gates said. “We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks, and the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground.’’

Mullen acknowledged that time and patience are short, and that the fighting so far has not neutralized the Taliban as a military force. Some military assessments from within Afghanistan conclude the insurgency is more potent. Whiffs of that conclusion emerged from tens of thousands of leaked secret war assessments that Mullen decried as an appalling breach of trust.

Gates accused the website WikiLeaks, which posted the material a week ago, of “moral culpability’’ for potentially deadly repercussions. The Taliban can glean a lot about US tactics and sources from the documents, said Gates, who appeared on ABC’s “This Week.’’

“That’s where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks,’’ Gates said. “They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.’’