WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rejected the U.S military's recommended timeline for pulling 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, opting for a faster, more "aggressive" drawdown of "greater risk," the top U.S. military officer and the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday.
While both Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said they supported Obama's plan, their unusually blunt public comments revealed the fierce debate within the administration and among lawmakers of both parties over Obama's decision to withdraw the 33,000 troops by the end of next summer.
Some Republicans warned that Obama's plan would endanger hard-fought gains against the Taliban-led insurgency, while some joined Democrats in complaining that the pace of the drawdown, which begins with a 10,000-troop reduction this year, is too slow.
Obama denied during a visit to troops at Fort Drum, N.Y., that he was reducing forces "precipitously."
Speaking to soldiers and officers of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most heavily deployed Army contingents in the nearly decade-long conflict, Obama said the drawdown would be made "in a steady way to make sure that all of the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained."
The 33,000 troops were sent last year under a "surge" that Obama announced in a December 2009 war strategy speech in which he pledged to start withdrawing U.S. forces from the country's longest war next month. Their departure would still leave some 68,000 U.S. soldiers, most of whom would be gone by the end of 2014.
Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee that the pace and scale of the drawdown that Obama announced on Wednesday in a nationally televised address are "more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept."
Hours later, Petraeus echoed Mullen as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing be the new CIA director.
Obama decided "on a more aggressive formulation in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended," Petraeus replied to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel's chairman.
He later elaborated, saying that "what that means, in, of course, soldier shorthand, commander shorthand, is . . . that we assess that there is a greater risk . . . to the accomplishment of the various objectives of the campaign plan. It doesn't mean they can't be achieved."
He said that he, Mullen and Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, recommended that the 33,000 troops, most of who deployed into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, remain until the end of 2012, he said.
Petraeus said he would return to Kabul on Friday to complete planning for the more rapid drawdown, including ensuring that there would be sufficient Afghan security forces to take over areas from which U.S. troops would be withdrawn.
Mullen and Petraeus separately stressed that Obama had to weigh other factors and viewpoints in making his decision — they declined to go into details — and both said they'd endorsed it.
"Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so," Mullen said. "Ultimately the decision has to be made and . . . ultimately I support it."
A U.S. defense official said that Obama's decision was a "compromise" brokered by retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates between the military's recommendation and a proposal pushed by unnamed White House aides for all 33,000 troops to be out by next spring.
Vice President Joe Biden and some other administration officials reportedly pressed for a more rapid withdrawal, concerned about the strain of the war on the federal budget, the flagging domestic economy, growing popular opposition to the decade-old conflict and Obama's re-election prospects.
Pressure on Obama to disengage from Afghanistan also has risen significantly since U.S. Navy SEALs killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in a May 2 raid on his hideout near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
"I was hopeful that 33,000 could be more out this year," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan.
But some U.S. officials and commanders and other experts are deeply concerned that conditions in Afghanistan remain grave, with violence and casualties at record highs and Afghan security forces plagued by serious problems, including illiteracy and high desertion rates.
"Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners, the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asserted in a Senate floor speech.
Moreover, experts note that the cooperation of Pakistan, where the leadership of the Taliban and allied groups are based, is essential in helping bring about negotiations on a political settlement to the war. But they also point out that relations are at an all-time low between the U.S. and Pakistan, which remains enraged and humiliated over being kept in the dark about the raid that killed bin Laden.
Even so, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration thinks "a political solution" to the war "is possible."
She confirmed that U.S. officials have had "very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban," which she said was "not a pleasant business." But, she added, insurgencies historically end through a combination of military pressure and political negotiations.
Clinton was apparently referring to at least three meetings that a senior U.S. diplomat has held with Tayyeb Agha, a former personal assistant to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader who is believed to be living in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
U.S. officials, however, have indicated that there has been no apparent progress toward convening negotiations on peace agreement, and serious questions remain about how much influence Agha still wields with Omar and his leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura.
"We're a long way from knowing what the realistic elements of such an agreement would be," Clinton acknowledged.
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