U.S. President Barack Obama declared on Wednesday that the United States had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan, setting in motion a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops in an acknowledgment of the shifting threat in the region and the fast-changing political and economic landscape in a war-weary America.
Asserting that the country that served as a base for the September 11, 2001 attacks no longer represented a terrorist threat to the United States, Mr. Obama declared the “tide of war is receding”.
And in a blunt recognition of domestic economic strains, he said, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
Mr. Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 “surge” of forces would leave by next summer, amounting to about a third of the 100,000 troops now in the country. He said the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace”, until the United States handed over security to the Afghan authorities in 2014.
The troop reductions, which were decided after a short but fierce internal debate, will be both deeper and faster than the recommendations made by Mr. Obama's military commanders, and they will come as the President faces relentless budget pressures, an increasingly restive U.S. public and a re-election campaign next year.
Mr. Obama, speaking in businesslike tones during a 15-minute address from the East Room of the White House, talked of ending America's longest war and of the painful lessons he thought could be taken from it. While justifying the nation's decade-long commitment, he talked of “ending the war responsibly” and warned of the perils of overextending the military by sending large numbers of soldiers into combat. He acknowledged huge challenges remained before an end to the conflict that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and 1,500 American lives.
The withdrawals would begin winding down the military's counterinsurgency strategy, which Mr. Obama adopted 18 months ago. Administration officials indicated they planned to place more emphasis on focused clandestine counterterrorism operations of the kind that killed Osama bin Laden, which the President cited as Exhibit A in the case for a substantial U.S. troop reduction.
He said that an intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan had crippled al-Qaeda's original network in the region, leaving its leaders either dead or pinned down in the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders identified by U.S. intelligence, 20 had been killed in the last year and a half, said administration officials said.
The pace of the withdrawal is a setback for the President's top commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, who has been named director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Petraeus did not endorse the decision, said another official.
Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates argued publicly against a too-hasty withdrawal of troops, but he said in a statement on Wednesday that he supported Mr. Obama's decision. During the internal debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed reservations about the scale of the reductions, officials said.
General Petraeus had recommended limiting withdrawals to 5,000 troops this year and another 5,000 over the winter.
He and other military commanders argued that the 18 months since Mr. Obama announced the troop increase did not allow for enough time for the Americans to consolidate the fragile gains that they had made in Helmand and other provinces.
But troops have succeeded in clearing many towns and cities of insurgents and then keeping them safe so that markets were able to reopen and girls were able to go to school, for example.
The effort to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces remains elusive because the Afghan troops are proving unprepared for the job. Corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai continues to be rampant, sapping the confidence of many Afghans. — New York Times News Service
(Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.)