Obama calls on country to unite in Afghanistan fight against al-Qaeda

President Barack Obama invoked the September 11 attacks Tuesday in calling for the nation to unite behind his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Obama announced he would send an additional 30,000 troops to the war-torn country on an expedited schedule so that the reinforcements would arrive by mid-2010.

But he also promised to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 in a speech delivered from West Point in front of an audience of cadets, some headed for Afghanistan.

“I do not make this decision lightly,” Obama said of the troop surge. “I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.”

Obama warned that the ongoing effort to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda will be an “enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world.”

Obama sought to bring Democrats critical of his approach to Afghanistan on board in parts of his speech.

He drew a distinction with Vietnam, a war that has parallels to the Afghanistan conflict. Some Democrats have warned Obama’s domestic agenda could be sidetracked by the cost and political conflict over sending more troops to Afghanistan, just as Vietnam affected former President Lyndon Johnson’s “great society.”

Obama said he disagrees because that “argument depends upon a false reading of history.”

The president said that unlike Vietnam, the U.S. enjoys the support of 43 nations and is not fighting a “broad-based popular insurgency." He also noted that the attacks on the U.S. in 2001 were hatched in Afghanistan.

Democrats offered mixed views before and after the speech, with some offering support and others criticizing the decision.

"President Obama made a convincing case that sending additional troops to Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is critical to our national security," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not endorse Obama's plan for more troops, but did say in a statement that he had articulated a way out of the war. She said Congress would examine the strategy, and credited Obama for giving Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai an opportunity to work with the U.S.

"President Obama inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan because the Bush administration did not have a plan to get the job done," she said.

“Tonight, the president articulated a way out of this war with the mission of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as safe havens to again launch attacks against the United States and our allies," Pelosi continued. "The President has offered President Karzai a chance to prove that he is a reliable partner.  The American people and the Congress will now have an opportunity to fully examine this strategy."

Republicans applauded the decision to send more troops, but decried Obama’s pledge for withdrawal. They zeroed in on the argument that conditions on the ground in Afghanistan should determine withdrawal, and not a pre-determined deadline.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's 2008 presidential opponent, told NBC after the speech that even though he believes “Republicans and Democrats should support the strategy” but is opposed to Obama's laid out timelines.

“What I don’t support and do not agree with is an arbitrary date for withdrawal. That’s not success,” McCain said. “You set an arbitrary date, it emboldens our enemies and dispirits our allies, and so I believe that we need to clear that up. Because either you’re going to set an arbitrary date or it’s going to be set by conditions on the ground.”

Obama addressed that criticism and flatly rejected calls for what he said would commit the U.S. “to a nation building project of up to a decade.”

“I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests,” Obama said.  “Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.”

The president put the Afghan government on notice that “the days of providing a blank check are over.”

Obama did not describe how he intended to pay for the escalation, but he did say anticipates the new approach “is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion” this year.

Obama said he is “committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly,” and he promised to work closely with Congress “to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.”

Obama outlined what he sees as the three core elements of his strategy for the war: “a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”

The president's speech was at times extremely partisan as he repeatedly criticized former President George W. Bush while at the same time calling for national unity.

The president decried the deteriorating security situation in the region, repeatedly taking swipes at Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq while success in Afghanistan was still fragile. Obama campaigned in 2008 as an anti-Iraq war candidate, but argued the Bush administration had allowed Iraq to distract it from the real war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Obama was criticized by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans for "dithering" on his decision on Afghanistan, which was made after months of talks with his war council. Obama’s administration was divided over how to proceed, judging from a series of leaks to the media that irritated the president.

Obama on Tuesday spoke of how he agonized over the decision to send more troops and spend more money at a time of economic crisis, but he continued to state his belief that Afghanistan is a war of necessity.

“If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow,” Obama said.

The president painted a picture of a country on the verge of being overrun by violent extremists, warning that “the status quo is unsustainable.”

“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards,” Obama said. “There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border.”

The president also called for an end to partisan bickering a renewed sense of unity like that that brought Americans together after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united – bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear,” Obama said. “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.”

In calling for that renewed unity, Obama warned the country that “we are passing through a time of great trial.”

“And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering,” he said.

This story was updated at 9:39 p.m.