Obama Hopes for New Phase After Afghan Elections

Raising expectations for scaling back military operations in Afghanistan, President Obama said Tuesday he hopes U.S. involvement can "transition to a different phase" after Afghan elections in August.

The president said he is looking for an exit strategy where the Afghan security forces, courts and government take more responsibility for the country's security. That would enable U.S. and other international military forces to play a smaller role.

Obama made his remarks after a White House meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Talks between the two leaders included discussion of the Netherlands' help with the U.S.-led effort to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dutch combat troops have been a mainstay among the allied forces fighting in the volatile southern reaches of Afghanistan.

After taking office in January, Obama reviewed U.S. progress in Afghanistan and announced in March a new approach that included sending an additional 17,000 combat troops, including Marines who have just kicked off an offensive in Taliban strongholds in the south of the country.

The president has faced some congressional misgivings over his Afghanistan policy, with some Democrats pushing for early results from the new administration strategy.

In remarks in Moscow last week, Obama said it was too early to judge the success of his new approach in Afghanistan because "we have just begun" to implement it. Obama also installed a new U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, in May and a new U.S. military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in June.

On Tuesday, however, the president emphasized an exit strategy.

"All of us want to see an effective exit strategy where increasingly the Afghan army, Afghan police, Afghan courts, Afghan government are taking more responsibility for their own security," he said.

If the Afghan presidential election scheduled for Aug. 20 comes off successfully, and if the U.S. and its coalition partners continue training Afghan security forces and take a more effective approach to economic development, "then my hope is that we will be able to begin transitioning into a different phase in Afghanistan," Obama said.

European countries, including the Netherlands, have long argued that Afghanistan is primarily a challenge of economic, political and diplomatic dimensions, rather than mainly a military problem. Obama praised the Dutch for their assistance in the region and noted that he had embraced the Dutch strategy of combining defense, diplomacy and development to move Afghanistan to greater autonomy.

The president's remarks came in the second week of a push by an estimated 4,000 Marines who are carrying out one of the biggest U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since the Taliban was removed from power in 2001.

The Marines are operating in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy producing area. So far, 107 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year; there were 151 U.S. deaths in the country in all of 2008.