By Caren Bohan and Phil Stewart, Reuters
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, facing public doubts about his ability to turn the tide in the unpopular Afghanistan war, said Sunday his goals there are both modest and attainable.
Obama administration officials are struggling to measure success in the nine-year-old war ahead of a December strategy review. The president and other officials have been emphasizing that their aim is fighting al Qaeda, not building a U.S.-style democracy.
“Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy,” Obama told CBS News in an interview that was taped on Friday and aired on Sunday.
“What we’re looking to do is difficult but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is: Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland with impunity. That can be accomplished.”
The release of thousands of classified documents by the website WikiLeaks has helped to fan doubts about the war. July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the conflict started in 2001.
U.S. officials have played down revelations in the WikiLeaks documents, which painted a grim picture of the U.S.-led war and raised new doubts about key ally Pakistan.
But at the same time, Obama administration officials said the release of military secrets could cost lives and damage trust of allies by exposing U.S. intelligence gathering methods and names of Afghan contacts.
As investigators broadened their probe of the leak, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said WikiLeaks was at least morally guilty over the release.
Obama announced in December an additional 30,000 troops to fight the war. He also said he intended to start pulling out U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 as long as the right conditions existed.
War weariness has become especially acute among many in Obama’s Democratic Party.
Last week, Congress approved funds to pay for the Afghanistan troop increase but the measure garnered the support of more Republicans than Democrats.
IS WAR WORTH FIGHTING?
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program, Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, appeared reluctant to say whether she thought the Afghanistan war was worth fighting.
“We will see the metrics as they unfold in the next few months and certainly by the end of this year,” the House speaker said.
But Pelosi echoed Obama in saying fighting al Qaeda was the top goal.
“We’re in Afghanistan because it’s in our strategic national interests to be so for our own national security, to stop terrorism, to increase global security,” she said.
Asked about the July 2011 date to begin pulling U.S. troops out, Pelosi said she hoped there would be a withdrawal of more than just a couple of thousand troops.
Senator Lindsey Graham acknowledged that more troops might be needed in Afghanistan to keep the enemy “on the run,” but said signs of progress must be evident.
“If, by December, we’re not showing some progress, we’re in trouble,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And the question is, what is progress? Without some benchmarks and measurements, it’s going to be hard to sell the American people a continued involvement in Afghanistan.”
On the same ABC show, Gates voiced frustration at critics who say the United States lacks a plan to win the war, despite Obama’s lengthy review last year that ended with the decision for a troop increase.
The objective, Gates said, was to reverse the momentum of Taliban insurgents, deny them access to towns and cities and ramp up Afghan security forces so they can defend themselves and prevent al Qaeda from returning to the country.
“I think that the president’s strategy is really quite clear,” Gates said.
“If I didn’t think it was important for our national security to finish the job in Afghanistan, then I would pull them all out today because I have to sign letters to these family members when a loved one is lost,” Obama told CBS.
Gates said that in the WikiLeaks case there were “two areas of culpability.”
“One is legal culpability,” he said. “… There’s also a moral culpability. And that’s where I think the verdict is ’guilty’ on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”
The U.S. investigation is focusing on Bradley Manning, who worked as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, U.S. officials say. Manning is already under arrest and charged with leaking a classified video showing a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to authorities this year after receiving what appeared to be incriminating messages from him, told Reuters he believed U.S. investigators were also looking at people close to Manning with ties to WikiLeaks.