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Obama imposes his new plans on Iraq, Afghan wars

By MARTIN SIEFF
President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as he delivers remarks about former Senator George Mitchell's (D-ME) upcoming trip to Iraq in the White House in Washington on January 26, 2009. (UPI Photo/Kevin Dietsch)
1 of 2 | President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as he delivers remarks about former Senator George Mitchell's (D-ME) upcoming trip to Iraq in the White House in Washington on January 26, 2009. (UPI Photo/Kevin Dietsch) | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has hit the ground running on Iraq and Afghanistan, imposing dramatic changes in policy in both wars within a week of taking the oath of office.

There are no surprises in the directions Obama is taking in both conflicts: He spelled them out clearly during his long election campaign. What is striking is the speed and decisiveness with which he is imposing both policies.

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In Iraq, Obama already has discussed a full range of policy options with Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David Petraeus, who heads U.S. Central Command, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The president now plans to visit the Pentagon in person to discuss with senior officers his planned policy on Iraq and the different options for fulfilling it.

While not unprecedented, such personal visits by the president to the Pentagon are far from routine, and this one appears set to make clear to civilian and military staffers of the Department of Defense the president's determination to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq as soon as possible and set new strategic directions around the world.

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The Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush administration finally concluded before leaving office with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gives a three-year deadline for withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces. But Obama in his campaign pledged to pull them out in 16 months -- less than half that time.

A source close to Petraeus told UPI the president wants to see a range of options to implement his Iraq withdrawal plans.

Other military sources have told UPI there is unease, especially among middle-level serving officers in Iraq or those who have served there, about accelerating the rate of the withdrawal and risking destabilizing the great gains in security that have been achieved over the past two years, especially in Anbar and Diyala provinces.

Whatever the reservations of serving Army officers, the civilian echelon in the new administration is solidly behind the president on his grand strategy for Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and influential veteran Democratic policymakers like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk all favor pulling the troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible, starting a serious dialogue with Iran and pushing for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement with full vigor, sources close to the administration have told UPI.

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On Afghanistan, there appears to be wall-to-wall agreement between the Obama civilian policymakers and top military officials that a combination of stepped-up U.S. military responses and a vigorous diplomatic initiative is necessary to drive the resurgent Taliban to the negotiating table.

Administration sources said the two key figures there were former Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, who Obama appointed as his chief envoy on the Pakistan and Afghanistan issues, and Petraeus, who the president holds in high regard.

Petraeus and Holbrooke see eye-to-eye on Afghanistan. Holbrooke's previous great diplomatic achievement was negotiating an end to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, especially the Serb-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, which was the bloodiest war Europe has seen since World War II. In negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, Holbrooke effectively used U.S. air power and the threat of increased U.S. involvement to bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table and keep them there. He is, therefore, in full accord with Obama and Petraeus on the need to combine stepped-up military force with a diplomatic initiative.

Voice of America radio has reported that Holbrooke's "plan will most likely focus on countering Taliban bases in Pakistan's tribal regions that are blamed for contributing to a spike in violence on both sides of the border."

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On Friday Obama chaired his first National Security Council session on Afghanistan and Pakistan and approved the continued use of unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on guerrilla bases in the region.

Obama, therefore, has wasted no time in maintaining and even stepping up U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan war, while pushing hard to implement his plans for military withdrawal from Iraq. His first moves have been clear and decisive. How successful they will prove remains to be seen.

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