Obama said U.S. ally Pakistan needs to be more accountable, but ruled out deploying U.S. troops there. "Our plan does not change the recognition of Pakistan as a sovereign government," the president told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview broadcast Sunday.
The president also bemoaned the tenuous security situation in Afghanistan, saying, "Unless we get a handle on it now, we're gonna be in trouble." He made clear that his new strategy for the long war is "not going to be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources" from the United States.
In a wide-ranging interview, Obama sought to counter the notion that Afghanistan has become his war. He emphasized that it started on George W. Bush's watch.
"I think it's America's war. And it's the same war that we initiated after 9/11 as a consequence of those attacks," Obama said. "The focus over the last seven years I think has been lost."
Obama taped the interview Friday, the same day he launched the fresh effort to defeat al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, widening a war that began after terrorists struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. He set new benchmarks and ordered 4,000 more troops to the war zone as well as hundreds of civilians and increased aid. The plan does not include an exit timeline.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," said the short-term objectives for U.S. forces in Afghanistan have narrowed under Obama's new strategy even as a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan remains a long-term goal.
"I think what we need to focus on and focus our efforts is making headway and reversing the Taliban's momentum and strengthening the Afghan army and police, and really going after al-Qaida, as the president said," Gates said.
Al-Qaida terrorists are still a serious threat and retain the ability to plan attacks against the United States even though they have been inhibited over the past several years, Gates said.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have praised the new U.S. strategy for dealing with growing violence in the region.
But Obama has irked Pakistan since taking office in January by retaining a powerful but controversial weapon left over from the Bush administration's fight against terrorism: unmanned Predator drone missile strikes on Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan has urged Obama to halt the strikes. But Gates has signaled to Congress that the U.S. would continue to go after al-Qaida inside Pakistan, and senior Obama administration officials have called the strikes effective.
Without directly referring to the strikes, Obama said: "If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we're going after them. But our main thrust has to be to help Pakistan defeat these extremists."
Asked if he meant he would put U.S. troops on the ground in Pakistan, Obama said: "No." He noted that Pakistan is a sovereign nation and said: "We need to work with them and through them to deal with al-Qaida. But we have to hold them much more accountable."
"What we wanna do is say to the Pakistani people: You are our friends, you are our allies. We are going to give you the tools to defeat al-Qaida and to root out these safe havens. But we also expect some accountability. And we expect that you understand the severity and the nature of the threat," Obama added.
His strategy is built on an ambitious goal of boosting the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011 — and greatly increasing training by U.S. troops accompanying them — so the Afghan military can defeat Taliban insurgents and take control of the war.
In the interview, Obama said he won't assume that more troops will result in an improved situation. "There may be a point of diminishing returns in terms of troop levels. We've gotta also make sure that our civilian efforts, our diplomatic efforts and our development efforts, are just as robustly encouraged."
Obama agreed that things are worse than ever in Afghanistan, and then sought to clarify his point.
"They're not worse than they were when the Taliban was in charge and al-Qaida was operating with impunity," Obama said. But, he added, "We have seen a deterioration over the last several years."
"This is gonna be hard," Obama said. "I'm under no illusions. If it was easy, it would have already been completed." He also stressed the need to be flexible. "We will continue to monitor and adjust our strategies to make sure that we're not just going down blind alleys."