Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama to outline Afghanistan troop withdrawal plan

Washington-- President Barack Obama will deliver a nationally televised address Wednesday night outlining his long-awaited plan to begin U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan -- a move meant to appeal to a war-weary public without damaging American security interests.
The president's speech is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.
Obama will announce that all 33,000 U.S. "surge" forces will be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012, according to a senior administration official.
Members of Congress are being informed that roughly 10,000 troops will be withdrawn by the end of this year, followed by approximately 20,000 next year, a congressional source said.
The time frame would give U.S. commanders another two "fighting" seasons with the bulk of U.S. forces still available for combat operations.
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Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pushed for additional time to roll back Taliban gains in the country before starting any significant withdrawal -- a position at odds with a majority of Americans, according to recent public opinion surveys.
Gates -- along with Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus -- had pushed for an initial drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops this year, the congressional source said. The secretary also urged the president to withdraw support troops only -- not combat troops.
Obama, however, ultimately decided to adopt a more aggressive withdrawal plan.
Gates acknowledged Tuesday that the president must take into account public opinion and congressional support for further military engagement.
"Sustainability here at home" is an important consideration, Gates said, noting that people are "tired of a decade of war."
Public exhaustion with the conflict is reflected in recent public opinion polls. Nearly three-quarters of Americans support the United States pulling some or all of its forces from Afghanistan, according to a June 3-7 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey.
That figure jumped 10 percentage points since May, likely as a result of the death of Osama bin Laden, pollsters said.
Republicans -- who have been the strongest supporters of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- appear to be shifting their opinion on the conflict. Forty-seven percent of Republicans said in May that they favored a partial or full withdrawal of American troops. Sixty percent of Republicans favored a withdrawal when asked this month.
The sharp divisions have been reflected in Congress, where both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly split.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, acknowledged Wednesday the public is "a bit weary" about the war but said there should not be any "precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces.
"We've got an awful lot invested" in Afghanistan, Boehner said. Political leaders shouldn't "jeopardize the success that we've made."
"If the president listens to the commanders on the ground and our diplomats in the region and makes a decision, I'll be there to support him," he added.
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, repeated his call for a withdrawal of 15,000 troops this year.
"The level of U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan needs to be significant to achieve its purpose --- letting the Afghan government know we are determined to shift primary responsibility for their security to the Afghan security forces," Levin said Tuesday in a statement.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, called Tuesday for a "substantial and responsible reduction" in troop levels, arguing the war has become fiscally irresponsible and more resources need to be focused on domestic problems.
The United States has spent roughly $443 billion on the war in Afghanistan, according to budget analysts. According to Travis Sharp, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, the troop reductions that Obama is expected to announce would bring a savings of about $7 billion in fiscal year 2012.
Manchin's remarks led to a rebuke from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who characterized his comments as a dangerous return to isolationism. McCain warned the relative lack of American attention paid to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal there contributed to the rise of the Taliban.
An estimated 100,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, some 30,000 of which are part of the so-called surge ordered in 2009 in a bid to control the rising violence.
The president is expected, in his remarks Wednesday, to stress the importance of preserving flexibility in force levels on the ground so commanders can adjust as conditions warrant, the official said.
The drawdown will be accomplished by troops returning home and not being replaced as well as canceling some proposed deployments.
So far, Obama has only said publicly that troops will begin coming home in July, and he recently indicated the number would be "significant."
The president has repeatedly said he is confident the United States can meet the self-imposed deadline to begin bringing troops back from Afghanistan without compromising Afghan security, though military commanders and government officials have raised concern about the readiness of Afghan security forces.
"We have made great strides toward achieving the objectives laid out in the mission that the president articulated in December of 2009," White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier this week.
Obama "will make his decision based on the need to succeed further in achieving those objectives and to transfer authority gradually, security authority, over to the Afghan national security forces, with an eye to the fact that, as agreed to by NATO in Lisbon, we will eventually transfer full security lead over to the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) in 2014," Carney said.
The deployment of U.S. forces also hasn't been popular with many Afghan leaders, who openly criticize the presence of the Americans in their country.
It's a message that's not lost on Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
"When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended, and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on," Eikenberry said during a Sunday speech at Herat University in western Afghanistan.
"At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause ... the American people will ask for our forces to come home."

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