WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama announced plans Wednesday to pull 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan well before next year’s election, signaling a rapid drawdown sure to please Americans weary of the nearly decade-long war and its costs.
The quick drawdown will be faster than military commanders had recommended. Instead, it reflects growing public pressure to get out of Afghanistan and to stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars on faraway conflict at a time the U.S. government is grappling with record deficits.
“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he said in a nationally televised address from the White House.
“The tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.”
Obama said he will withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, with another 23,000 out by September of next year – at the latest. Most will return to their home bases – the vast majority of those in the U.S.
That would end the surge of 33,000 troops he announced in December 2009 and leave about 68,000 U.S. troops there.
Obama will meet with NATO allies next May in Chicago to plot the final drawdown of those and other allied troops by 2014, when they hope Afghan forces will be able to guard against any comeback by al-Qaida terrorists or the Taliban regime that had protected them.
It’s possible to draw down the troops now, he said, because the long war and surge of extra forces has achieved its goal: denying a haven to the al-Qaida terror network, which used Afghanistan as its base while planning its 2001 attacks on the U.S.
“We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” Obama said. “Al-Qaida is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al-Qaida’s leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al-Qaida had ever known.”
After weeks of internal debates, Obama settled on a middle-of-the-road approach between the military’s recommendations of a slower drawdown and the push for a faster withdrawal coming from members of both major parties, including Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Obama was given “a range of options,” including some that would have drawn down the troops at a slower pace, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy. “Some of those options would not have removed troops as fast as the president chose to do,” he said.
Those options came from Army Gen. David Petraeus, but also apparently from others within the administration. Biden, for example, has been an advocate for a much smaller troop presence focused on countering terrorism, as Lugar proposes.
“The president’s decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team,” the official added.
Administration officials stressed that the 33,000 troops could be withdrawn even faster but left no room for a slower withdrawal.
“That will be no later than September. It could be before,” one administration official said. “There will be flexibility in the precise timing, but by next summer the full 33,000 troops associated with the surge will be out of Afghanistan.”
Some U.S. officials worry that Afghan forces – especially the police – will be hard-pressed to maintain security in the Taliban’s former southern strongholds vacated by U.S. troops.
Some experts – and privately, some U.S. officials – also question the administration’s claim that the surge has succeeded in “reversing the Taliban’s momentum.” Instead, these experts said, the insurgents have laid low or shifted to other parts of the country to wait out the U.S. withdrawal.
“The surge has not worked in really weakening the Taliban. Yes, there were a lot killed, but they were replaced, and the Taliban is even extending into new areas,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected Kabul-based analysis group. “It’s a zero-sum game, I would say.”
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