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Updated: June 21, 2011 19:29 IST

Obama to move U.S. closer to leaving Afghanistan

AP
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US President Barack Obama. File photo: AP.
US President Barack Obama. File photo: AP.

Officials said Mr. Obama was expected to lay out at least two benchmarks for bringing troops home. The first withdrawal, in July, could reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by up to 5,000.

President Barack Obama will move the United States a step closer to ending the war in Afghanistan when he announces plans on Wednesday to bring thousands of American troops home, beginning next month.

Administration officials said the president was still in the final phase of a decision—making process that has focused not only on how many troops will come home in July, but also on a broader withdrawal blueprint designed to put the U.S. on a path toward giving Afghans control of their security by 2014.

Officials said Mr. Obama was expected to lay out at least two benchmarks for bringing troops home. The first withdrawal, in July, could reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by up to 5,000.

Mr. Obama was given a range of options for the withdrawal last week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The military favours a gradual reduction in troops but other advisers are advocating a significant decrease in the coming months.

The president has said he favours a significant withdrawal, his advisers have not quantified that statement.

At a democratic fundraiser in Washington on Monday night, Mr. Obama said that by the end of the year, “we will be transitioning in Afghanistan to turn over more and more security to the Afghan people.”

Mr. Obama is expected to make Wednesday’s announcement in Washington. On Thursday, he will visit troops at Fort Drum, the upstate New York military base that is home to the 10th Mountain 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 more telling aspects of Mr. Obama’s decision centres 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 the president must at least map out the initial withdrawal of the surge troops when he addresses the public. But whether those forces should come out over the next eight to 12 months or slowly trickle out 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 insurgency in Afghanistan, the al—Qaeda training ground for the September 11 attacks. There are also concerns about pulling out a substantial number of U.S. forces as the heightened summer fighting season gets under way.

Retiring Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said he believes the initial drawdown should be “modest.”

But other advisers are backing a more significant withdrawal that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following months. That camp believes the slow yet steady security gains in Afghanistan, combined with the death of Osama bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the al—Qaeda network in the country, give the president an opportunity to make larger reductions this year.

There is also growing political pressure in Congress for a more significant withdrawal. Twenty—seven senators, Democrats as well as Republicans, sent Mr. 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 senators wrote. “The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits.”

Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, differed with that assessment. He told ABC television on Tuesday that he agreed with Mr. Gates in hoping the withdrawal would be “modest.”

“I believe that one more fighting season and we can get this thing pretty well wrapped up,” said Mr. McCain, who lost to Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

There is broad public support for starting to withdraw U.S. troops. According to an Associated Press—GfK poll last month, 80 percent of Americans say they approve of Mr. Obama’s decision to begin withdrawal of combat troops in July and end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014. Just 15 percent disapprove.

Mr. Obama has tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office, 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.

The president took months to settle on the surge strategy. This time around, aides say the process is far less formal and Mr. Obama is far more knowledgeable about the situation in Afghanistan than he was in 2009, his first year in office.

Aides say Mr. Obama won’t be overhauling the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as he starts the drawdown. Instead, they say he sees it as a critical part of the process to end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and turn security responsibility over to the Afghans.

On a trip to Afghanistan earlier this month, Mr. Gates advocated for a comprehensive decision from the president.

“I think to make a decision on July in complete isolation from anything else has no strategic meaning,” Mr. Gates said. “And so part of that has to be kind of, what’s the book end? Where are we headed? What’s the ramp look like?”

Mr. Gates is retiring from the Pentagon on June 30.

There are also indications that the administration, having learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq, will set deadline dates for the drawdown as it progresses, in order to keep pressure on the Afghans and give Congress mileposts.

With Iraq as a blueprint, commanders will need time to figure out what they call “battlefield geometry”, what types of troops are needed where. Those could include trainers, intelligence officers, special operations forces, various support units - from medical and construction to air transport - as well as combat troops.

Much of that will depend on where the Afghan security forces are able to take the lead, as well as the state of the insurgency. Part of the debate will also require commanders to determine the appropriate ratio of trainers versus combat troops.

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