Obama sets course for U.S. exit from Afghanistan

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.

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