WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama announces a plan to start bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. (Video by Reuters)
By Heather Maher
WASHINGTON -- Declaring that "the tide of war is receding" and that America is meeting its goals of defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that he will withdraw 10,000 troops this year and 23,000 more next year, representing a U.S. force reduction of approximately 30 percent.
The withdrawal equals the number of "surge" troops Obama ordered into battle in December 2009 and signals the start of what he called "the beginning, but not the end of [America's] effort to wind down this war."
Speaking in a nationally televised speech from the White House, Obama maintained that a withdrawal is now possible because the United States and its allies have largely met their goals of degrading Al-Qaeda's capabilities, inflicting "serious losses" on the Taliban, and training Afghan security forces to assume responsibility for their own citizens.
"We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength," he said. "Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of Al-Qaeda's leadership.
"And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that Al-Qaeda had ever known."
Obama himself has been under increasing pressure in the United States to bring America's longest war to an end, with many members of Congress and the public now regarding the conflict in Afghanistan as unwinnable, unaffordable, and undeserving of more spilled American blood.
Huge Challenges Remain
At the NATO summit in Lisbon in November, the United States and its allies agreed to bring military operations in the country to an end by 2014, at which time their role will become one of support for Afghan security forces. Some 132,000 NATO forces are currently serving in Afghanistan.
Obama said "huge challenges remain" but also noted that in some provinces, transfers of security responsibilities have already begun. He praised Afghans for taking over what has been a frustratingly long and deadly battle against insurgents, noting that Afghan security forces "have grown by over 100,000 troops."
"In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war," Obama said.
The U.S. drawdown will turn over more responsibility to Afghan security forces.
From the start of his term in office, Obama has tied success in Afghanistan to success in Pakistan, which remains a haven for both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Despite multilayered efforts at cooperation, the wariness with which Washington and Islamabad view each other has increased in the wake of Osama bin Laden's May 2 killing by U.S. Special Forces on Pakistani soil, and the two countries are uneasy partners in the regional battle against insurgents.
Obama said he will keep the pressure on the Pakistani government "to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. And we will insist that it keep its commitments."
Corruption Remains Endemic
But no one -- least of all the American public -- believes that Afghanistan can be transformed into a completely secure and self-reliant country in the three years that remain in the military mission.
Corruption remains endemic in President Hamid Karzai's government and civilian deaths -- for which the United Nations says the Taliban is largely responsible -- were the highest last year since 2001.
As evidence that Washington isn't reaching for an unachievable goal, Obama admitted that the country won't be "a perfect place" by the time U.S. military involvement ends.
"We will not police [Afghanistan's] streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely," he said. "That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace."
Obama said that instead, America will "build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures -- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government."
The White House plans to complete the troop withdrawal in two phases -- 5,000 troops will come home this summer and 5,000 more will return by the end of the year. Next year, 23,000 more will be pulled out, leaving some 70,000 U.S. troops in the country.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, had argued for a more modest and slower withdrawal to protect what he has described as fragile security gains. An Obama administration official told "The New York Times" that Petraeus, who is leaving his post to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did not endorse Obama's decision.
Former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, predicted that the troop drawdown will bring some strategy changes on the ground.
"I think what you're going to see is [NATO] turning over more [responsibility] to Afghans and relying more on what people call 'counterterrorism' rather than counterinsurgency," he said. "In other words, bringing American firepower [only] if the Afghan security forces can't handle a situation or if the Taliban try and come back into particular areas."
Soaring Costs Of War
Obama's withdrawal timetable means that 33,000 troops will have been brought home from war just as Americans go to the polls in the November 2012 presidential election.
The announcement, coming just as his reelection campaign is getting under way, will allow Obama to use his campaign speeches to underscore that he is ending U.S. involvement in an unpopular war.
A new AP-GfK poll shows that only 52 percent of Americans approve of how he has handled the conflict in Afghanistan. The cost of the war has soared to $120 billion this year alone, and the U.S. death toll now stands at around 1,500.
The urgent need Obama feels to show the public that he's focused on domestic issues like unemployment, which stands at over 9 percent, and the economy, which shows new signs of weakening, was evident toward the end of his remarks when he declared: "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home."
"Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times," Obama said.
"Now we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means.
"We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war."
In his remarks, Obama also signaled a possible shift in U.S. foreign policy, informed by what he called "the lessons" of a decade of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called for a "more centered course" of action in the face of threats, one that is "pragmatic" and "strategic" and that favors targeted force over the "deploy[ment] of large armies overseas."
In response to his critics in Congress who oppose the White House's participation in NATO's Libya mission, Obama held up his decision to do so as example of how the United States can contribute its muscle to protect civilians without "a single soldier on the ground."
The Center for American Progress's Korb said Obama did a "good job touching all of the bases" with the many audiences who heard the speech.
Korb said Obama reassured the Afghan people that the U.S. isn't leaving right away, but did put them on notice that someday they will; he credited the U.S. military for achieving gains that allow him to bring American troops home; and to those who want less involvement overseas and more focus on domestic issues by the White House, Obama sounded like he agreed.
But, Korb added, "He couldn't please everybody completely."