WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama announced a plan yesterday to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in a first step toward ending the long, costly war and returning America’s focus toward its 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 Sept. 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 reflected the competing pressures he faces as he seeks to curb spending and halt U.S. casualties without allowing the threat of extremist attacks to fester.
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 as fighting intensifies along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.
“We’ve undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer’s fighting season,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even after the withdrawal of the 33,00 U.S. troops, about 70,000 will remain in Afghanistan, about twice the number there when Obama took office.
Reaction from the U.S. Congress was mixed, as lawmakers impatient with a war that now costs more than $110 billion a year complained Obama should have embraced a larger drawdown.
Unease in Washington over the war has escalated with worries about massive budget deficits, spiraling national debt and unemployment running at more than 9 percent. These are Americans’ chief concerns and the issues likely to drive voters in next year’s presidential election.
Obama clearly has been mindful of the U.S. public’s lack of support for the war as he eyes his re-election campaign.
SHIFT SINCE BIN LADEN’S DEATH
The debate over future U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has shifted palpably since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month. Obama said materials recovered from bin Laden’s compound showed al Qaeda was ‘under enormous strain.’
In the wake of bin Laden’s death, the Obama administration has argued even more forcefully that it must adopt a narrow, defensive approach to dirt-poor Afghanistan, focusing on lawless havens insurgents can use to launch attacks.