Obama promises lengthy U.S. commitment to Afghanistan 

President Obama reaffirmed his plan to start pulling troops from Afghanistan in just over a year, but warned the expense of the war and its aftermath will continue for much longer.

"We are not suddenly as of July 2011 finished with Afghanistan," Obama said. "To the contrary, part of what I've tried to emphasize to President Karzai and the Afghan people, but also to the American people, is this is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence."

Obama's remarks came in a joint press conference that was part of a larger effort to mend the frayed relationship between the two leaders. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington with his top lieutenants, meeting with administration officials and members of Congress.

Under pressure to show progress in the war that has dragged on for more than nine years, Obama is trying to manage expectations ahead of another round of funding requests for the costly endeavor.

"To the American people, I think what they should know is is that we are steadily making progress," Obama said. "It's not overnight, it's not going to be instant."

Even after the troop pullout begins, Obama envisions a longer-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan to help rebuild the economy and civil institutions. He has so far declined to set a time frame for a full military withdrawal from the country.

Since 2001, Congress has approved about $345 billion to fund the war in Afghanistan. Obama wants $33 billion more this year to help fund his troop surge, plus $2 billion in direct foreign aid.

Afghanistan has received nearly $20 billion in foreign aid since the start of the war. The money pays for reconstruction, economic development and other assistance -- and Karzai noted it represents 80 percent of the outside aid that Afghanistan receives.

A key part of the administration's long-term strategy includes luring Afghans away from extremist groups like the Taliban and also from the lucrative heroin trade -- ideas that require a significant investment in improving the prospects of an impoverished nation.

But there is still the battle. A recent push against the Taliban in Marjah will be followed shortly by another in Kandahar.

Obama's Afghan strategy represents both a gamble and a compromise.

His combined surge-and-withdrawal plan for troops may have left him with enough room to maneuver -- but a persistent criticism of his plan is the lack of an exit strategy.

To that end, Obama and Karzai stressed the prospects for an upcoming peace assembly in Kabul. Among other things, Karzai's plan includes converting members of the Taliban into reintegrated members of Afghan society.

"There are thousands of the Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of al Qaeda or other terrorist networks, or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us," Karzai said. "It is this group that is our intention."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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