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'll 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 political parties, including Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Lugar plans to tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing Thursday that the entire mission in Afghanistan should be redefined away from the broad counterinsurgency strategy that requires large troops levels to a narrower counterterrorism plan.
"No rational review would commit nearly 100,000 troops and $100 billion a year to Afghanistan," Lugar plans to tell Clinton, according to an advance text of his remarks.
"The country does not hold that level of strategic value for us, especially at a time when our nation is confronting a debt crisis and our armed forces are being strained by repeated combat deployments."
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."
While Americans are eager to get out of the war — polls show a majority want out as soon as possible — Obama is gambling that the remaining U.S.-led NATO troops and Afghan forces can keep a lid on bloodletting as he enters the homestretch of his re-election campaign.
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.
Already, there are reports that new U.S.-backed village militias are committing crimes that could prompt locals to invite the Taliban back to restore security, said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected Kabul-based analysis group.
"There are more and more reports that they are raping and robbing," Ruttig said. "That won't create stability."
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," Ruttig said. "It's a zero-sum game, I would say."
Moreover, said former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali, corruption remains rampant and the Afghan government still lacks the ability to provide basic services.
"When the surge was decided, they (the Obama administration) said it would be conditions-based," Jalali said. "If it really is conditions-based, there shouldn't be a major drawdown this year or next."
Obama's military strategy has aimed at putting sufficient military pressure on the insurgents to compel their leaders to embrace invitations by the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to open talks on a political settlement.
U.S. officials, however, concede that three meetings with a former top aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar have produced no progress toward negotiations. And some question whether the Taliban have any incentive to negotiate now that a third of the U.S. force in Afghanistan will be gone by the end of next summer.
More seriously, some U.S. officials and other experts warned that the mere idea of talks has been fueling serious tensions that could re-ignite the bloody civil war between the former Northern Alliance and the Taliban that was halted by the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Leaders of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, who comprised most of the Northern Alliance, fiercely oppose talks with their former Taliban foes, who are mostly from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group. The minorities could take up arms again rather than share power with the insurgents, these experts said.
Afghanistan's minorities "have long memories of Taliban rule in which the Taliban were known to be exclusive instead of inclusive and for their brutality to minorities," said a former close Karzai aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
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