President Barack Obama, announcing a reduction of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan by September 2012, said it was “time to focus on nation-building at home” and offered a “centered course” for U.S. military engagement that he said would be rooted in pragmatism.
In a nationally televised speech, Obama sought to balance the demands of the military, which wanted to avoid a rapid withdrawal, and the sentiments of many Americans, who polls show think the war is no longer worth waging.
“We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” Obama said last night in the East Room of the White House. “The tide of war is receding.”
Obama’s plan would withdraw 10,000 troops before the end of this year and an additional 23,000 -- the remainder of last year’s troop surge -- as the 2012 presidential election campaign kicks into high gear.
The president in 2009 ordered deployment of the additional forces to quell a growing Taliban insurgency, and he said last night that the goals set out then largely have been accomplished. Even with the withdrawals, the U.S. will have roughly 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, about twice as many as were there when Obama was elected in 2008. Also in the country are more than 40,000 personnel from 48 other nations, which are making plans to pull back as well.
A Middle Path
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Obama’s withdrawal plan parallels how he dealt with the surge.
“It isn’t everything the military appeared to ask for, but it’s much of it,” he said. “He’s apparently doing neither what the military wants nor what progressives in the Democratic Party want. It may very well satisfy people in the middle.”
Obama, 49, said the nation has gone through a “difficult decade” with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the U.S. must take a different approach to exercising military power.
“We must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute,” he said. “When threatened, we must respond with force. But when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”
The president didn’t give a timetable for withdrawing additional troops except to say it would continue at a “steady pace” until Afghan forces take full responsibility for their nation’s security.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring at the end of this month, said in a statement after the speech that the president’s decision “provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”
Obama consulted with allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and members of Congress before the speech. He said the next phase for the transition in Afghanistan will be shaped at a NATO meeting next May in his adopted hometown of Chicago.
The president went to Fort Drum, New York, today to meet with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, which was one of the first units deployed in Obama’s surge.
“We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops,” Obama told them. “We’re going to do it in a steady way to make sure the gains all of you have helped bring about can be sustained.”
Support on Wane
War weariness has been reflected both in surveys that show a growing desire among Americans for troops to be brought home and in pressure from Congress, including from Obama’s fellow Democrats.
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.
Republican congressional leaders offered tempered support for Obama’s announcement, saying that a withdrawal was appropriate while warning the president against rushing the process.
“We all want to bring our troops home as quickly as possible, but we must ensure that the gains we’ve made are not jeopardized,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. “Congress will hold the administration accountable.”
Other Republicans and some Democrats said Obama hadn’t gone far enough.
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor who until recently was Obama’s envoy to China, said the U.S. should remake the Afghanistan operation “to a focused counterterror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that much of the public and many in Congress won’t be satisfied with Obama’s plan, and that she would push for a quicker withdrawal.
“It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out, and we will continue to press for a better outcome,” she said in a statement.
Some Republicans said Obama was rushing the withdrawal based on waning public support, and was potentially undermining chances for success in Afghanistan.
“I think we have undercut a strategy that was working,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said last night on CNN. “I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all of the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer’s fighting season.”
War costs, which have contributed to a federal budget deficit that both Congress and Obama have promised to cut, also have figured in the debate.
“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” Obama said. “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
The conflicts 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. That figure doesn’t include as much as $100 billion the Pentagon lists as not war-related, such as spending on intelligence, or the long-term costs of care and disability payments for the 44,266 veterans who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The government’s fiscal 2011 budget includes $113.5 billion for Afghanistan operations, up from $56.1 billion in 2009, and $45.8 billion for Iraq.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based public policy institute with close ties to the White House, said that while Obama may be expecting a political boost from the withdrawals in time for next year’s presidential election, “I don’t this is a big enough withdrawal to satisfy the people who are concerned about the costs.”
Katulis said the pace of troop withdrawals is only part of what is important from a policy perspective. “The bigger questions are what’s our strategy to help stabilize not only Afghanistan, but Pakistan, which is a nuclear power,” he said.