President Obama announced plans to send home 10,000 troops from Afghanistan and another 23,000 by end the September 2012 in a primetime TV and radio address Wednesday night.
In the 10-minute speech, Obama said he was fulfilling a promise he made at a speech at West Point in 2009 when he ordered a surge of 30,000 troops — that the troops would begin coming home starting in July 2011.
“Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment,” he said.
“Thanks to our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals,” he continued. “As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point.”
The decision was made after months of assessments and debates among his national security team, as well as weeks of consultations with Congress, about the appropriate ongoing commitment to the longest war in U.S. history and a country still plagued by corruption, violence and a weak central government.
Although the withdrawal is slower than many Democrats wanted, it departs from the recommendations of Obama’s top military commander Robert Gates, who is retiring at the end of this month. Gates had called for the troop levels to remain through the end of next year, in order to continue training Afghan forces and stabilize the country. Gen. David Petraeus also urged the President to allow more time for the counter-insurgency strategy adopted after a lengthy strategy review in 2009. Obama recently tapped Petraeus to take over the CIA after its departing director Leon Panetta moves to succeed Gates at the Pentagon.
White House spokesman Jay Carney and other administration officials have insisted the President made the decision on his own and did not bow to pressures from a skeptical American public, critics of the war in Congress or even his top military brass.
Those pressures remain as Obama faces the tough political task of selling his plan to voters with a long memory of his promises of ending both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sending all of the troops home. Under the current White House plan, some 70,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan and Iraq at the end of next summer, compared to the 180,000 in in both countries right now, a dramatic reduction by anyone’s standards but still far from the expectations of some Democrats.
Minutes after the speech ended, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent out a statement crediting Obama with making it clear that he has begun the process of bringing the troops home and ending the war in Afghanistan, but she also expressed a degree of disappointment.
“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,” she said.
“Concluding this war will enable us to reduce the deficit and focus fuller attention on the priorities of the American people: creating jobs and investing in our nation’s future by building a strong, thriving economy for our children,” Pelosi added.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) echoed Pelosi’s sentiments, recognizing the positive development the drawdown represented but arguing that the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops this year.
“I will continue to advocate for an accelerated drawdown in the months ahead, and for enhanced training and partnering with Afghan forces, because only they can provide durable security for their nation,” he said in a statement.
Levin cited several conditions justifying a larger drawdown including the progress the U.S. and Afghan troops and U.S. allies have made to improve security in Afghanistan; the faster than expected growth of the Afghan security forces; the death of Osama bin Laden and the decreasing number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan; and the need to transition as quickly as possible to Afghan responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to increase the chances for long-term success of the mission there.
Levin, who receives continuous administration briefings on progress in Afghanistan, also cited hard numbers. He noted that there are 100,000 additional Afghan solders and police than there were when the troop surge began and the country is ahead of schedule for reaching the goal of 350,000 troops by October of this year. And from April 2010 to March 2011, the number of major operations that were conducted with partnered Afghan units rose from 54 percent to 95 percent across all the regional commands.
But Obama also faced serious pressure from Republicans and those in his own party nervous about eroding the recent gains on the ground, as well as the economic dependence of a country on the U.S. presence there for the last 10 years. Most GOP senators led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have called for a much smaller and slower drawdown and have exhorted Obama not to abandon our troops our are commitment to the country as we did in the late 1980s after we successfully helped the Mujahideen kick out the Russians.
Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary, quickly dismissed Obama’s withdrawal announcement as wrong-headed and politically motivated.
“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan,” Romney said in a statement Wednesday night. “This decision should not be based on politics or economics. America’s brave men and women in uniform have fought to achieve significant progress in Afghanistan, some having paid the ultimate price.
Romney also said he looks forward to hearing the testimony of the nation’s military commanders in the days ahead, a sign that he will use ever opportunity available in the months ahead to demonstrate his differences with Obama on the topic.
One of the leading Republicans who will be holding some of the most important hearings on national security and the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq also made it plain that he is dead-set against the withdrawal.
“I am concerned about the President’s plan to begin troop withdrawal in Afghanistan,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who chairs the House intelligence committee. “We are in a very precarious place in Afghanistan right now. It seems the President is trying to find a political solution with a military component to it, when it needs to be the other way around.
Rogers also said the “handwringing we are seeing in some corners of Washington” reminded him of the “panic we saw in the early stages of the Iraq surge.”
“We have a good strategy in Afghanistan - we just need the political courage here in Washington to see it through,” he said.
The political stakes for Obama on the drawdown couldn’t be higher as he tries to sell the plan to the American people who are more skeptical than ever about our continued presence there and a Congress that is increasingly displaying an isolationist streak when it comes to U.S. military intervention overseas.
Congress is embroiled in a heated debate over Obama’s foreign policy and whether the War Powers Act requires Obama to seek Congressional approval for continued military action in Libya with the House planning a vote on yanking troops from Libya as early as Friday.
Obama plans to meet with Congressional leaders Thursday morning before traveling to Fort Drum in upstate New York to begin selling the proposal to the American people, the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In his Wednesday night speech, Obama addressed outspoken members of both parties who are calling for the country to stop inserting itself in conflicts overseas and focus our energies on boosting the economy and creating jobs at home. Instead of rejecting or embracing those critics, he advocated for a middle-ground on intervening in foreign conflicts that stands in stark contrast to the policies of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, over the last 10 years.
“Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world,” he said. “Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.”
“We must chart a more centered course,” he continued. “Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.”
The U.S. would not shy away from responding with force when threatened, Obama said, but that force can be targeted as to avoid deploying large armies overseas. In a clear reference to his decisions on Libya, he also said American “doesn’t have to stand idly by” in the face of humanitarian disasters when another nation’s citizens are being threatened by a brutal dictator, or when global security is endangered.
“Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny,” he said.
An administration official told TPM that his comments about carving out a middle ground in the debate between isolationism and perpetual interventionism were very deliberate and amounted to “a new approach.”
In his speech, Obama plainly stated that it is time to drawback from “nation-building,” a message that usually plays well on the campaign trail. Indeed, President Bush derided nation-building in his campaign for the presidency in 2000, before he was thrust into responding to the 9/11 attacks.
The comments about establishing a middle ground along the interventionist/isolationist spectrum were intended as a response to criticism that his foreign policy lacks any clear definition or doctrine.
“He’s very self-consciously going to claim the center of that debate tonight and say that there’s not a choice between…pulling back from the world precipitously, pulling the plug on what we’re doing in Libya and getting out of Afghanistan precipitously, or staying in Afghanistan until every last Taliban has been killed or increasing our role in Libya so that we’re back in the lead,” the official said.