Obama answers troop question, but prompts others

KABUL (AP) - The much-anticipated new U.S. war strategy finally in hand, Afghans and U.S. troops on the ground began asking key questions Wednesday on the fate of the violence-battered nation: Can the Afghan government fight corruption and ready its forces to secure the nation? Can U.S. troops really start going home in July 2011?

Many Afghans were still sleeping when President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said NATO and U.S. forces would hand over responsibility for securing the country to the Afghan security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow." Obama said if conditions are right, U.S. troops could begin leaving Afghanistan in 18 months.

McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met after the speech with Afghan President Hamid Karzai but details of the conversation were not released.

U.S. service members, deployed 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Kabul in Wardak province, learned of Obama's decision to send more troops while watching TV clips of his speech during their breakfast of sausage, eggs, hash browns, fruit and cereal at Forward Operating Base Airborne.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip M. Hauser, an explosive demolition expert from Salina, Kansas, is on his fourth tour of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Really, I'm truly happy," he said of Obama's troop buildup. "As soon as the Afghans can do it on their own without our help, we can go home."

Asked if the Afghan security forces were ready, Hauser noted their inexperience, but didn't question their determination.

"They charge in and start pulling the wires" on the explosives, Hauser said. "It's not the safest way to do things, but these guys have the guts."

Sgt. Maj. Andrew Spano of Northboro, Massachusetts, deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, wondered whether to bank on the beginnings of a U.S. pullout in 18 months.

"What does that really mean?" he asked.

Capt. Mark Reel from Norfolk, Virginia, a civil affairs officer, said more troops mean nothing unless they can give local Afghans a sense of perceived security.

"They have to believe they are more secure. You get thousands of troops on some of these bases here, but what are they really doing? The troops just have to get out there (in the field.)." The reason the surge worked in Iraq, he said, is because troops were able to get into the field and make Iraqis feel safer, he said.

Davood Moradian, senior adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cautioned against comparing the two wars.

"We are very pleased with the president's statement and, in particular, we want to thank the United States for its emphasis on having a long and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan," he said. "We are very pleased and support President Obama's analysis that Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But I think Afghanistan is not Iraq. Therefore, we have to be very careful about that."

Both Obama and McChrystal cautioned that success in Afghanistan will be achieved only through efforts that match military and security force training with governance and economic development aid that can sustain long-term stability.

While acknowledging Karzai as the legitimately elected leader, Obama noted fraud in the recent presidential election. The Obama administration has said Karzai's pledge to tackle corruption is a step forward, but say they will hold him to his pledge to reform the ineffectual government.

Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan where a large chunk of the new U.S. forces will be deployed, cited corruption as the worst problem facing his nation.

"The biggest problem is corruption in the Afghan government, police and military but also in some of the companies coming from the United States, Canada and England and Germany," Hamidi said. "There is corruption and drug dealing by the people who are in power, within the police and the military."

Hamidi said just last month he was told that Taliban were sleeping in the police barracks.

"The police are taking money from both sides - the government and the Taliban," he said. "When we have this kind of police and military, the Afghan problem won't be solved in 20 years."

He also said that safe havens next door in Pakistan have to be shut down if Afghanistan's insurgency is to be curbed.

The speech drew a lukewarm reaction in neighboring Pakistan, where key al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden are believed to have taken refuge. Obama's announcement of a tentative date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan risks making it less likely that Pakistan will crack down on Taliban fighters using Pakistani territory as a safe haven.

"More American troops will mean more violence," said Pakistani engineering student Ammar Ahmed, 20. "It will worsen the situation both in Afghanistan and Pakistan."


Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann, Sebastian Abbott and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Darlene Superville and Steven Hurst in West Point, N.Y. contributed to this report.


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