By David Saltonstall
Daily News Senior Correspondent
President Obama bluntly warned Friday that "the terrorists who planned and supported 9/11" are hiding out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he vowed to take the fight to them with a "comprehensive" new strategy for the region.
Obama said he would send an additional 4,000 troops — in addition to the 17,000 additional personnel he has already sent — to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaeda terrorists and other militants in both countries.
"If the Afghanistan government falls to the Taliban or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged," Obama said in unveiling his new blueprint, "that country will again be a base for terrorists."
"The situation is increasingly perilous," he added. "Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan."
Obama said Afghanistan has for six years been denied needed resources because of the war in Iraq.
"Now, that will change," Obama said, signaling the administration's gradual pivot away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. "For the first time, this will fully resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police."
The president made clear that his plan would not just involve boots on the ground, but a broader approach aimed at building up the region's infrastructure while gradually handing over security to local forces.
In particular, Obama said he'd support legislation to increase economic and development aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion annually for five years, in exchange for that country cracking down on militants.
If the president needed a reminder of the increase in insurgent attacks in the region, he got one today when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a roadside mosque during Friday prayers in the northern tribal area of Pakistan — killing at least 70, government officials said.
Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Obama called the problem in the volatile region an "international security challenge of the highest order" and solemnly invoked the memory of 9/11.
"The United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives," Obama said.
Members of Congress were mostly supportive of Obama's new plan, although several key players offered notes of caution.
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative John McHugh, urged colleagues to back the strategy but called for deploying another 10,000 troops and urged Obama to win more NATO support.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations, declared himself "pleased" by the focus on crushing al-Quaeda and boosting economic aid, but still worried that the plan focused too much on Afghanistan.
"We need to fully address the inextricable links between the crisis in Afghanistan and the instability and terrorist threats in Pakistan," Feingold said in a statement.
Representatives of the two nations were much more upbeat.
Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, said Kabul was "very grateful" to the Obama administration for "this new strategy for victory."
Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said it was an "extraordinarily positive" sign that Obama was re-examining US policy in the region.
"It bodes well not only for a stronger regional approach to a clearly regional problem, but to a more mature bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan," Haqqani said.