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Obama To Announce Plans On Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

  • RFE/RL

Afghan soldiers arrive at the gate of an international military compound in Kabul.

Afghan soldiers arrive at the gate of an international military compound in Kabul.

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to move the country a step closer to ending its military involvement in the Afghanistan war tonight when he announces plans to bring thousands of U.S. soldiers home.

Officials in Obama's administration have said in the days before the speech that he was still in the final phase of a decision-making process that focused not only on how many troops would come home beginning in July, but also on a broader withdrawal plan designed to give Afghans control of their security by 2014.

At a White House briefing on June 21, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's announcement will be a fulfilment of his December 2009 pledge to the American people to begin withdrawing troops this summer.

"The parameters of the decision involve the beginning of the drawdown of U.S. forces," Carney said. "As you know, we ramped up in a surge the number of forces in Afghanistan, and we are at that peak point. And the president identified in December of 2009 -- made the commitment that forces would begin the drawdown in July of 2011. He is keeping that commitment, and that’s what he will announce tomorrow evening."

Obama was given a range of options for the withdrawal last week by General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The U.S. military favors a gradual reduction in troops from the current 100,000, but other advisers say there should be a significant decrease in the coming months.

While Obama has said he favors a significant withdrawal, his advisers have not quantified that statement.

On June 23, the day after his Washington speech, he will visit troops at Fort Drum, a military base in the mountains of upstate New York that is home to the 10th Mountain Infantry Division -- one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan and Iraq.

While much of the attention is focused on how many troops will leave Afghanistan next month, the most revealing aspects of Obama's decision center on what happens after July -- particularly how long the president plans to keep the 30,000 surge forces he sent to the country in 2009.

There is a growing belief that Obama must at least map out the initial withdrawal of the 30,000 surge troops when he addresses the public. But whether those forces should be sent home in large numbers during the next eight to 12 months or be pulled out more gradually over a longer time is hotly debated.

Military commanders want to keep as many of those forces in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the fragile security gains in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There are also concerns about pulling out a substantial number of U.S. forces as the heightened summer fighting season gets under way.

Handover Worries

Sebastian Gorka, a military affairs analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told RFE/RL recently that Afghanistan's own security forces were nowhere close to being prepared to take over security operations on their own by the end of 2014.

"The fact is, if you look at the simple statistics of the size of territory that we are talking about, the forces available in the coalition, and the forces available or the potential forces and capabilities available to the [President Hamid] Karzai government -- we're not there," Gorka said. "We are very far away from being able to hand over the situation to the local forces and for the Karzai government to effectively exercise sovereignty over Afghanistan."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring from his Pentagon post at the end of this month, has said he thinks the initial drawdown should be "modest."

Speaking during a visit to Kabul earlier this month, Gates reassured Afghan President Karzai that the U.S. withdrawal would not leave the Afghan government facing the insurgency on its own.

"The Afghan people should remember two main things," Gates said. "First, while the U.S. and our coalition partners may draw down our military forces over time, we are committed to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan. We will continue to train, equip, and support Afghan security forces and do what we can to help the government improve the lives of its citizens. In short, there will be no rush to the exits."

Too Fast v. Too Slow

Some of Obama's advisers are backing a more significant withdrawal that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following months. Those advisers argue that steady security gains in Afghanistan, along with the death of Osama bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the Al-Qaeda network, give Obama an opportunity to withdraw larger numbers of troops this year.

There also is growing political pressure on Obama from U.S. lawmakers for a more significant withdrawal. Twenty-seven U.S. senators -- Democrats and Republicans -- sent Obama a letter last week pressing for a shift in Afghanistan strategy and major troop cuts.

"Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops," the letter from the senators says. "The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits."

There also is broad public support in the United States to start withdrawing U.S. troops. Recent public-opinion surveys suggest 80 percent of Americans approve of Obama's opinion to begin the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in July and end U.S. combat operations there by the end of 2014. Opinion polls suggest only about 15 percent of Americans disapprove of the withdrawal plan.

Obama has tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office at the start of 2009 -- bringing the total there to about 100,000. The 30,000-troop surge he announced at the end of 2009 came with the condition that he would start bringing forces home in July 2011.

written by Ron Synovitz based on news agency reports

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