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Obama breaks with Bush Afghan policy

President Obama delivers his new Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates
Obama's plan has received a broad welcome from Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Flanked by military and civilian members of his top foreign policy team, President Barack Obama unveiled his eagerly awaited policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The result of a two-month review conducted by former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, it signalled a clear break with the approach adopted by the Bush administration on several levels.

The tone differed significantly when discussing the threat from militants and the rationale behind continuing America's involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There was no "you're either with us or against us", no cowboy-like "we'll smoke them out of their holes", just a simple, stern message to al-Qaeda that "we will defeat you".

He signalled that Washington was in it together with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the extremists the US was fighting were as much a threat to America as they were to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the US, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists," said Mr Obama. "The safety of people around the world is at stake," he added.

New commitment

The hope is that by framing it in those terms, Washington will be appealing to the governments of the two countries and to ordinary people to stay on board in the fight against militancy. It could resonate beyond the region as well to Muslims elsewhere in the world.

His regional, international approach reaches out to foes as well, like Iran

While the broad lines of the pragmatic plan were not all new or surprising, the commitment to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan is.

Under the Bush administration, the fight against al-Qaeda and the stabilisation of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban was neglected as Washington focused on the war in Iraq.

Mr Obama said Afghanistan had been denied the resources it needed for the last three years as he promised to commit more in terms of development projects and training for Afghan forces.

By approaching Afganistan and Pakistan with one strategy, while recognising that they are two different countries, the Obama administration also acknowledges that any success in Afghanistan would be undermined if violence spiralled in Pakistan and vice versa.

The Bush administration's approach to the two countries had been described as unco-ordinated, and sometimes even at odds.

Aid pledge

The US president did not set a time limit, signalling a long-term commitment towards both countries. While this open-ended commitment with no clear exit strategy will worry some, it might reassure the two countries in question.

Pakistan has in the past complained that the relationship with Washington was too transactional.

A senior US official, speaking before the strategy was announced, told the BBC that the message to people in both countries, and especially Afghanistan was "we will not abandon you again or let you fall prey to the radicals".

Central to that effort will be the vast amount of aid and development projects in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

For five years, $1.5bn (£1.05bn) a year will be provided to enhance and assist the civilian government in Islamabad and provide economic opportunities for the people.

Benchmarks

The US state department is also expected to considerably increase its presence in western and northern Afghanistan, and boost the size of its embassy by half to 900 personnel, according to US media reports.

Mr Obama said these investments in money and civilian manpower would eventually help relieve the burden on US troops.

US marine on patrol in Delaram, south-western Afghanistan
Mr Obama said the US was flexible about offers of help from allies

He also made clear that while it was a long-term commitment, there would be clear benchmarks to measure the success of US efforts and also Pakistani and Afghan achievements. There was to be "no blank cheque" for either government.

But to achieve that, Mr Obama also made clear that allies would need to pitch in, as he talked again and again about a comprehensive and regional approach as well international efforts.

He sounded flexible when it came to what he would ask from allies at the Nato summit next week - each to his own ability, from training efforts to aid projects and support for the Afghan elections.

Reaching out

But there will also be requests for more troops.

His regional, international approach reaches out to foes as well, like Iran, in line with his administration's policy so far of attempting to focus on areas of mutual interest with difficult partners, like China, or indeed foes like Tehran.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have both welcomed the plan and praised the level of co-ordination and dialogue with Washington in the run-up to the announcement. A Pakistani diplomat in Washington described it as unprecedented.

Inevitably, there will be tensions - as US Predator strikes against Pakistan continue, or as some take issue with Mr Obama's description of Pakistan's border region as the "most dangerous place in the world".

But, for now, the American president seems to have infused new, positive momentum into the effort to turn the tide in Pakistan and Afghanistan.



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