President Barack Obama announced a plan on Wednesday to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in a first step toward ending the long, costly war and returning America’s focus toward it’s own troubled economy.
Obama said he would pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, followed by about 23,000 more by the end of next summer and a steady withdrawal of remaining troops after that.
In a 15-minute televised address, Obama vowed that the United States — struggling to restore its global image, repair its faltering economy and bring down the high jobless rate at home — would end a decade of military adventures prompted by the September 11 attacks in 2001 and exercise new restraint with American military power.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said, heralding the gradual drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and the limited U.S. involvement in the ongoing international campaign in Libya.
“America, it is time to focus on nation building at home.”
Yet news that Obama will pull the entire ‘surge’ force he sent to Afghanistan in 2010 is certain to fuel friction between Obama and his military advisors who have warned about the perils of a hasty drawdown.
Nearly 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled, U.S. and NATO forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the resurgent Islamist group. The Afghan government remains weak and notoriously corrupt, and billions of dollars in foreign aid efforts have yielded meager results.
Obama’s decision on trimming the U.S. force was a more aggressive approach than many expected. It went beyond the options offered by General David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, whom Obama has picked to lead the CIA.
The president’s decision appears to reflect the competing pressures he faces as he seeks to rein in government spending and halt American casualties without endangering the gains his commanders say they have made across southern Afghanistan.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he supported Obama’s decision, but the plan is unlikely to sit well with the Pentagon’s top brass who worry insurgents could regain lost territory and that fighting along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan will intensify.
Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the Pentagon would have favored a much smaller initial withdrawal.
“But the fact is that the conditions on the ground don’t merit any sort of withdrawal — it’s not time to be pulling out a substantive amount of troops,” he said. “There’s a lot that has to be done in the east and you’re not out of the woods in the south yet.”
Yet Obama also faces mounting demands from some quarters of the Congress, impatient with a war that now costs more than $110 billion a year, for a larger initial drawdown.
Even after the withdrawal of the 33,00 U.S. troops, about 70,000 will remain in Afghanistan by the autumn of 2012, more than were there when Obama took office.
SHIFT SINCE BIN LADEN’S DEATH
The debate in Washington has shifted palpably since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, which Obama said showed al Qaeda was ‘under enormous strain.’
Bin Laden’s death has given critics from both parties ammunition to argue that the Obama administration must narrow U.S. goals in desperately poor Afghanistan — focusing on lawless havens insurgents can use to launch attacks.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” Obama said. “That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”
Obama said the United States would continue to support efforts to foster a political settlement with the Taliban. Officials acknowledge a peace deal may be far in the future even if one could be had.
Obama is mindful of the American public’s lack of support for the war as he looks to his 2012 re-election campaign.
A Pew Research poll released on Tuesday found a record 56 percent of Americans favor bringing U.S. forces in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible.
Still, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan remains volatile and Obama will face heat from Republicans if he is seen as rushing toward the exit.
The Taliban has been pushed out of some areas of their southern heartland, but the insurgency has intensified along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
July marks the official start of NATO’s handover to local security forces in keeping with a plan to put Afghan soldiers in charge across the country by the end of 2014.
Serious doubts remain about whether Afghan forces, plagued by desertion and illiteracy, will be up to the task.
The more limited U.S. involvement in Libya, where NATO and its allies have been conducting air strikes since March in hopes leader Muammar Gaddafi will halt attacks on civilians, may be the model for future U.S. military engagement overseas.
“What I worry about is the message that is going to be taken away by our allies and potential allies about America’s orientation in the world,” said retired Lieutenant General David Barno, a former senior commander in Afghanistan.
“That sounded an awful lot like an ‘America come home’ speech,” he said.
Even as Obama charts a course for leaving Afghanistan, a major threat remains in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Obama warned Pakistan that the United States would not hesitate to launch strikes on militants targeting Americans.
Still, analysts have cautioned that if the United States walks away from Afghanistan, it does so at its own peril because of the risk the country could topple back into the grip of extremism or renewed civil war. Both of these scenarios could again open the door to al Qaeda.
“What will be important is what happens in two or three years from now,” said Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform in London.
“If Obama gets re-elected, and it all goes wrong, and Kabul has turned into another Mogadishu — then he would clearly have some explaining to do.”