Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama to Make First Pentagon Visit

President Barack Obama will make a short trip from the White House to the Pentagon on Wednesday, for fresh "unvarnished" advice from military brass on his Iraq withdrawal plan and the Afghan war.

In his first week in office, the new US commander-in-chief Obama has already instructed military planners to draw up proposals which would allow him to honor his campaign pledge to get most troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

The meetings on Wednesday were the latest step of a process initiated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to introduce Obama to all the key players in formulating his war strategy, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The president will get to meet "all the people that are involved in these decisions and all the people that are involved in committing the lives of men and women in our uniform," said Gibbs.

The ultimate idea was for the generals to offer Obama advice in an "unvarnished way," he said.

In his first days in office last week, Obama sat down with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command.

During his first visit to the Pentagon, Obama is to meet with Mullen and Gates. He is also to meet for the first time with the chiefs of staff of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

"They want an opportunity to talk about Afghanistan and continue the discussion on Iraq," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Monday.

Obama will also, at a later date, get some time for in-depth talks with General David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Gibbs said.

The new president has pledged to boost US forces in that country amid deteriorating security.

Some 36,000 US troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan, half of them operating under NATO. The Pentagon has promised to deploy up to 30,000 additional forces to Afghanistan, nearly doubling the US force there.

Obama argued last week that the war in Afghanistan, which he called "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism," could not be separated from the volatile border area with Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements have regrouped.

"My administration is committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan and to spending those resources wisely," said Obama when he appointed Richard Holbrooke as US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan on Thursday.

As part of his diplomatic push, the president said he would work with NATO allies and other states in the region, which could include central Asian countries and India -- Pakistan's arch-rival.

A debate is brewing over Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, where 143,000 US troops are currently deployed.

Following their meeting with Obama on January 21, Gates and Mullen shied away from endorsing the accelerated timetable. Gates cautioned that the session was just "the beginning of a process of evaluating various options."

Gates and Mullen have stressed that a series of elections in Iraq make this an important year for stabilizing the country.

Provincial elections are scheduled for January 31, marking the first time that Iraq's Sunnis will be going to the polls in large numbers after boycotting the last elections in 2005.

Obama will face the demands of the military joint chiefs, who want to ease the stress on their forces deployed on both fronts for several years, and those of General Raymond Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, who worries that a precipitous withdrawal could threaten security gains there.

US Marines Corps Commandant James Conway said he was ready to send "20,000 or less" Marines to Afghanistan, where about 2,200 Marines are currently deployed. He cautioned however that "anything you put into Afghanistan must necessarily come from a reduction of the number of Marines in Iraq."

Under an agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad in November, the US military is due to withdraw its combat troops from the country by the end of 2011.

In his first formal interview as president earlier this week, Obama told the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya television network his administration would be more actively engaged in Middle East diplomacy than Bush.

He told the Muslim world that "Americans are not your enemy," and pledged that his administration would "do a more effective job of reaching out, listening as well as speaking to the Muslim world."


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