President Barack Obama is directing the U.S. military to withdraw at least 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, as public and congressional support for the war wanes, an administration official said.
Obama tonight will outline a plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the number of troops sent in during the surge he ordered in 2009, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity before the president makes the announcement.
The withdrawals will come in two phases with 10,000 troops redeployed by the end of this year and the rest pulled out by September 2012, according to a congressional official who was briefed on Obama’s plan.
The president is coming under pressure from the public, lawmakers and some of the Republicans vying to run against him in 2012 to accelerate U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan as support for the war wanes. The calls for drawing the Afghan campaign to a close have increased since the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and as attention is focused on the nation’s debt and the cost of the war.
Obama is scheduled to outline his plans in an address from the White House at 8 p.m. Washington time.
The withdrawal timeline was reported earlier by the New York Times.
Obama’s plan would still leave about twice as many U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan as there were when he was elected in 2008 on a promise to end combat operations in Iraq and focus on the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Almost 100,000 U.S. forces are now serving in Afghanistan, along with more than 40,000 from other nations. In November 2008, when Obama won the presidency, the U.S. had roughly 30,800 personnel in the country.
In a Dec. 1, 2009, speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama announced his plan to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying U.S. security was at stake. At the same time, he vowed to begin bringing U.S. troops home by this July and turn over full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan together have cost the lives of 6,089 U.S. personnel and more than $1 trillion, according to Defense Department figures. The cost figure doesn’t include as much as $100 billion the Pentagon lists as not war- related, such as intelligence spending, or the long-term costs for Veterans Administration care and disability costs for the 44,266 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Admiral Michael Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are scheduled to testify about the president’s strategy at congressional hearings tomorrow. General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, also may be questioned about it at a confirmation hearing on his nomination to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the timing of withdrawals is important because the military wants to preserve “the maximum combat power it can bring to bear throughout the fighting season” this year and in 2012. The fighting season in Afghanistan typically runs from late spring through autumn.
Withdrawing 10,000 troops during this year’s fighting season would limit U.S. capabilities more than withdrawing 5,000 now and another 5,000 after the fighting season ends, said Fontaine, who is a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
Fontaine also said he expects most of the first withdrawals to be personnel that provide support, rather than combat troops. War costs, which have contributed to a trillion-dollar federal budget deficit that both the Congress and Obama have promised to cut, also have figured into the debate.
From a cost-savings perspective, if most of the withdrawals come in late 2012, Fontaine said, it will mean “you’re still talking about a war that’s north of $100 billion a year stretching through 2012.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is set to leave his post on June 30, said during his visit to Afghanistan this month that the drawdown shouldn’t jeopardize the past year’s gains to stem Taliban advances. Gates pushed for any drawdown of the surge to cover the next 18 to 24 months.
Negotiations With Taliban
Gates said the Taliban might be more willing to negotiate a reconciliation with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai by the end of this year if the U.S. can maintain military pressure.
A survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center found for the first time a majority of Americans, 56 percent, want to bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible rather than wait until the Afghan situation has stabilized.
That reflects an 8-point increase since May and a 16-point increase from a year ago. The survey of 1,502 adults was conducted June 15-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A Bloomberg National Poll conducted June 17-20 found almost one-third of Americans want an immediate withdrawal; 53 percent support withdrawal over the next couple of years.
A group of 27 senators, including two Republicans, signed a letter to Obama last week calling for a “sizable and sustained” reduction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Citing bin Laden’s death, the senators say the main U.S. objectives in Afghanistan have been met.
Another senator, Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement yesterday that “conditions on the ground” should allow Obama to withdraw at least 15,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year.
Separately, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution this week urging the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq to bring “war dollars home” to create jobs.
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