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Obama: U.S. on right track in Afghanistan

By JESSICA BINSCHM, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI
Obama: U.S. on right track in Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on May 12, 2010. UPI/Dennis Brack/Pool | License Photo

WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- While acknowledging that the fight ahead will be difficult, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday he expects to meet his timeline and begin drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan by summer 2011.

At a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the East Room of the White House, Obama said the situation would get worse before it gets better.

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"What I've tried to emphasize," Obama said, "is the fact that there is going to be some hard fighting over the next several months."

The international forces in Afghanistan are getting ready to retake Kandahar, the country's second largest city, in what is expected to be a tough battle.

Obama said U.S. forces are beginning to reverse the momentum of the insurgency, adding, "We are steadily making progress."

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The American president emphasized the administration's approach near the end of the news conference, saying, "I am more convinced than ever that we have found a difficult but appropriate strategy."

This strategy will include Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, where Taliban fighters were able to take refuge in the past. Obama said Pakistani leaders are recognizing that extremist strongholds along their border are threatening Pakistan's sovereignty and security. The country is engaged in a military campaign against extremists in their border regions.

To stabilize and secure Afghanistan, Obama stressed that a civilian component is increasingly important, especially when troops begin to leave.

"We can't win with a military strategy alone," Obama said, adding that a long-term strategy has to include a civilian component.

"More American civilians and experts are now partnering with their Afghan colleagues," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have said that the number of U.S. civilians has tripled in the last year. However, the military presence still far outweighs the civilian, with an additional 30,000 troops alone set to be in Afghanistan by this summer as part of Obama's surge.

The administration has said it aims to begin the drawback by July 2011. Obama said he is confident this timeline will be met but that the United States will continue to invest resources in Afghanistan.

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"Even as we begin to transition security responsibility to Afghans over the next year, we will sustain a robust commitment in Afghanistan going forward," Obama said.

On the issue of reconciliation with Taliban foot soldiers, Obama said the process has to be led by the Afghans. He expects a peace conference of Afghan leaders this summer to clarify the specifics of that process.

A draft of a plan for reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters calls for investments of $160 million funded by the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, among others. The United States has stressed preconditions for Afghan insurgents rejoin mainstream society. Among those are that fighters put down their weapons and denounce violence, as well as accept the Afghan constitution and government.

Despite assurances that the Afghan government will lead the process, experts say the United States will be heavily involved.

"The U.S. has to be fully on board because it is the U.S. blood and treasure that is being invested in Afghanistan," said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "The U.S. and the Karzai administration have to work hand in glove."

According to the draft, the reconciliation program would at first focus on a number of provinces across Afghanistan such as Helmand and Kandahar in the south or Kunduz in the north. Fighters willing to lay down their arms may be channeled through a demobilization center before they return to their villages, which would receive aid and investments in infrastructure.

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At the news conference, both leaders sought to demonstrate unity and partnership. Tensions between the two countries that made headlines in recent months have been "simply overstated," Obama said. "Obviously there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment and in a situation in which on the ground both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices."

Karzai said the two presidents discussed efforts to reduce civilian casualties "in great detail in a very frank and productive manner." The Afghan government in the past has asked U.S. forces to step up efforts to ensure the protection of civilians.

"When there is a civilian casualty, that is not just a political problem for me," Obama said. "I am ultimately accountable, just as (U.S. Army) General (Stanley) McChrystal is accountable, for somebody who is not on the battlefield getting killed."

Karzai visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center Tuesday and said it was heart-rending for him to see wounded soldiers. He thanked the American people for their commitment. "The work that we have done promises a better future for Afghanistan," he said.

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