President Barack Obama said the surge of military force he ordered to Afghanistan in 2009 largely has accomplished its objectives and he’ll pull the 33,000 extra troops from the country by the summer of 2012.
With waning public support for the almost 10-year-old war, Obama outlined a plan to withdraw 10,000 troops this year with the rest returning home by September of next year. He reiterated a goal of turning over security for the country to Afghan forces in 2014.
“We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” Obama said in a nationally televised address he delivered from the White House. “The tide of war is receding.”
The president is coming under increasing 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 discontent with the war grows. The calls for drawing the Afghan campaign to a close have risen 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.
The president dispatched the additional forces in 2009 to quell a growing Taliban insurgency. Even with the withdrawals, the U.S. will have about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, about twice as many as were in the country when Obama was elected in 2008. There are more than 40,000 personnel from other nations, which also are making plans to reduce troop deployments.
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 in the text. “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 intelligence spending, or the long-term costs for Veterans Administration care and disability for the 44,266 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The government’s fiscal 2011 budget plan includes $113.5 billion for Afghanistan operations, up from $56.1 billion in 2009, and $45.8 billion for Iraq.
In a Dec. 1, 2009, speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama announced his plan to deploy 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 to turn over full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014.
“This is the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama said tonight.
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’s leaving his post at the end of this month, said the president’s decision “provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Obama’s plan for withdrawal 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.”
The president said the nation has gone through a “difficult decade” with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said the U.S. must also take a more “centered course” in the future with dealing with foreign threats.
“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.”
War weariness has been reflected in surveys that show a growing desire among Americans for troops to be brought home and pressure from Congress, including Obama’s fellow Democrats.
Republican 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 said in a statement. “Congress will hold the administration accountable.”
Other Republicans and some Democrats said Obama hadn’t gone far enough in announcing the withdrawals.
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who until recently was Obama’s envoy to China, said the U.S. should remake the Afghanistan operation “to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said 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,” Pelosi said in a statement.
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 rise 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.