President Barack Obama will announce tomorrow the next step in his strategy for winding down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, beginning a withdrawal of troops starting next month as public support for the war wanes.
Obama had set a July deadline to start bringing home some of about 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and giving greater responsibility to Afghan security forces. A full handoff to the Afghans is planned by 2014.
“The president will keep the commitment that he made in December of 2009 to begin the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan next month,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing today.
Carney refused to provide details of the president’s announcement, including whether he will call for withdrawing all 30,000 troops that constitute last year’s military surge by the end of 2012, or a smaller portion, as military officials prefer. The Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed Pentagon officials, said Obama is expected to withdraw 10,000 personnel by the end of this year. Other reports said Obama plans to bring about 30,000 troops home by the end of 2012. Carney called those figures “speculation.”
The president will deliver a speech outlining his plans at 8 p.m. Washington time from the White House. The next day Obama will visit Fort Drum in New York, the base for the 10th Mountain Division, which has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Philip J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman, said the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and bipartisan concern over the deficit mean Obama would have political support to cut the number of military personnel in Afghanistan by as much as a third.
“He will definitely be able to do that order of magnitude given the revised politics of the country today versus 2009,” Crowley, who holds the Omar Bradley Chair of Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. “That’s larger than the military would like to do but he’s got some political wind at his back and it gives him some greater flexibility.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is stepping down on June 30, and General David Petraeus, who is set to leave as the top commander in Afghanistan later this year to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, have favored keeping as many combat troops as possible on the ground through the end of the year. Petraeus gave the president options for a withdrawal last week.
Gates argued during his visit to Afghanistan this month that the withdrawal should be conducted so it doesn’t jeopardize the gains won in the past year to stem the Taliban’s advances.
“We have to look at it strategically like that and not just focus on the front end of this and whatever number gets announced in July,” Gates said.
The U.S. also has to consider what the decision signals to other allies in the coalition of nations fighting in Afghanistan, so they don’t take it as an indication they can withdraw immediately, he said.
Petraeus would endorse withdrawing 30,000 personnel by the end of 2012, the National Journal reported yesterday, citing unidentified military and administration officials.
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Obama’s tendency has been “to take a middle position between the high and the low end offered to him.”
Biddle said a course of withdrawing 30,000 troops over 18 months would give Obama the ability to propose “a very high number” that may appeal to those who want to leave Afghanistan, while extending it over a timeline that the military would accept.
Pressure has been mounting from the public and lawmakers for Obama to speed up the pace of the troop withdrawals since U.S. forces killed bin Laden last month.
A majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- said they favored withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to a June 15-19 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. Thirty-nine percent favored keeping U.S. forces there until the situation is stabilized.
Sentiment for pulling out is at an all-time high and has risen since the death of bin Laden, according to Pew. Last month, 48 percent favored an exit as soon as possible, and a year ago the figure was 40 percent, Pew data shows.
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 in the debate.
A Pew poll last month found that 60 percent of the U.S. public said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed “a great deal” to the nation’s debt, a bigger proportion than those who cited the economy, federal spending or tax cuts.
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.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors voted yesterday to urge the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and to bring “war dollars home” to create jobs.
The government’s fiscal 2011 budget plan includes $113.5 billion for Afghanistan operations, up from $56.1 billion in 2009. The U.S. will spend $45.8 billion for Iraq. Still, total Defense Department spending on both wars is down from its peak in 2008 of about $179.7 billion as the U.S. winds down its presence in Iraq.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this month that cost considerations were “right in the middle” of administration discussions about the pace of the withdrawals.