Hard fighting between U.S. troops and Afghan insurgents lies ahead in a bitter war that will go on beyond his own deadline of July 2011, President Obama said today.
Appearing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a joint press conference
, Obama reaffirmed a "strategic partnership'' with Afghanistan "over the long term.'' Obama warned that "there are many difficult days ahead,'' but he said that with the "courage and resolve'' of American and Afghan troops, "I am absolutely convinced we will succeed.''
Asked about the July, 2011 date that he cited last December as the point at which U.S. troops can begin to "transition'' out of Afghanistan, Obama said, "We are not suddenly as of July 2010 finished with Afghanistan -- to the contrary. Part of what I have tried to emphasize is that this is a long-term partnership not simply defined by our military presence.''
Both presidents expressed hope that within 14 months, Afghan security forces can begin to take over some duties from U.S. and allied troops. But they had no new initiatives to offer. According to U.S. officials, there are not enough military trainers being deployed by NATO countries to instruct sufficient numbers of Afghan police and soldiers.
Although the two men spoke in warm and gracious terms of their cooperation and commitment to what Obama called "our shared strategy,'' it was evident that critical differences remain. Among them: civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied military operations, and efforts by the Afghan government to negotiate a reconciliation agreement with senior Taliban leaders.
Even as Karzai is set to convene a "peace jirga'' of some 1,200 Afghans in Kabul, Obama vowed that military operations will continue against Taliban insurgents.
"The incentives for the Taliban to lay down their arms, or for portions of the Taliban to lay down their arms, in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily, and that's why we put in the additional U.S. troops,'' Obama told reporters. He referred to his decision last December to order some 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, most of whom have now arrived.
In the Obama-Karzai talks
this morning. reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban was a key issue, with Karzai seeking Obama's support for negotiations aimed at bringing senior Taliban commanders into an accommodation with the Afghan government.
Obama and his top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have resisted such negotiations, with McChrystal saying that his military forces must first "set the conditions'' for reconciliation. That's shorthand for dealing the Taliban a series of significant battlefield setbacks, forcing them to negotiate from a position of weakness.
In addition to U.S. and NATO ground operations across Afghanistan, that's what the drone attacks
are aimed at: putting pressure on the Afghan Taliban leaders, now hunkered down in Pakistan, as well as striking at Pakistani militants who are increasingly effective in destabilizing the fragile government of Pakistan.
The drone attacks against Taliban and other extremists in the border regions of Pakistan are intensifying, with the number of drone strikes set to double over the number last year, analysts said.
Karzai told reporters today that his efforts to draw in Taliban are aimed at what he said where thousands of "country boys'' who were intimidated into joining the Taliban and have nothing against the government of Afghanistan or the United States, for that matter.
Many of them, Karzai said, "want to come back to Afghanistan given the opportunity and provided the political means. It is this group we are addressing in the peace jirga,'' the conference set for later next month.
Obama cautiously endorsed that effort, but stressed that those seeking to rejoin Afghan society must show "respect for the Afghan constitution, the rule of law, human rights and renounce violence and ties to al-Qaeda.'' However, he added, "this has to be an Afghan-led effort, not one dictated by the United States or any other outside power.''
Karzai, acknowledging the sacrifices that American troops have made in Afghanistan, said he had visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington Thursday morning. He spoke movingly of meeting "a very, very young man'' who had been badly wounded, and expressed the gratitude of all Afghans for the willingness of young Americans to put themselves in harm's way on behalf of a better Afghanistan.
Nowhere during their joint press conference was there any sign of tensions that had plagued the relationship between the two presidents. It was only a few weeks ago, in fact, that Karzai had threatened to join the Taliban in protest of "foreign meddling'' in his affairs.
Asked about those tensions, Obama said they had been "overstated'' in the press, but he added: "Obviously, there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment ... Our job is to be a good friend and to be frank with President Karzai, saying 'Here's where we think we have to put more effort' ... I am very comfortable with the strong effort President Karzai has made so far,'' Obama said, adding that success "is not going to happen overnight.''
Karzai chimed in to acknowledge that "we have had differences of opinion ... but the relationship between the two governments and nations is strong and well rooted.''
Karzai and the dozens of ministers and aides he brought with him from Kabul on a U.S. Air Force plane will remain in Washington through Thursday, when he will make a major address at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Meantime, the war goes on on the ground and in the air.
"We're going after the networks,'' Roggio told me today, targeting especially the town of Datta Khel. U.S. drone strikes there have killed several senior al-Qaeda operatives as well as Bahadur's networks.
Last year U.S. drones struck in 53 attacks, according to Roggio, and this year have already mounted 35 attacks. The drone attacks are mostly by Predator
unmanned aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound JDAM