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President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday evening that he was withdrawing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and a total of 33,000 troops by the end of 2012. In short, the president has opted to leave the job in Afghanistan half finished because of political expediency and war weariness on the part of the American voter.
Saying, “[I]t is time to focus on nation building at home,” the president stated that the death of Osama bin Laden made the withdrawal possible and budget pressures in Congress made ending our commitment to Afghanistan’s security a necessity. There is also the matter of the president’s re-election that most analysts believe played a large role in the decision.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” said Obama. It is a sentiment echoed on Capitol Hill by members of both parties, and political activists on the left and right. Some Republicans disagreed with the president, but even many GOP presidential candidates tread softly in their responses.
Obama’s decision — delivered in a 13 minute speech in the East Room of the White House — was in direct opposition to what the vast majority of his military commanders had recommended. What the president referred to as a “commitment” to “refocus on al Qaeda” and “reverse the Taliban’s momentum” has, by most objective standards, been only partially met. And by withdrawing combat forces while the security situation is still unstable in key parts of the country, the president is gambling that the Afghan army and police can step up and perform up to expectations – something they have failed to do up to this point.
Even though analysts expect that the initial drawdown will include mostly engineers and support personnel, commanders in Afghanistan and the Pentagon were recommending a much smaller withdrawal of forces. They fear that the hard-won gains of the last 2 years in southern Afghanistan, where US forces successfully pushed the Taliban out of several key areas, would be lost if too many combat troops were to leave.
The Taliban chooses the summer months to mount its offensives, and the extra troops provided by the surge were able to confront and defeat them, especially in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Because the Taliban had been largely cleared from those areas, Afghanistan Commander General David Petreaus argued that withdrawing the surge troops so precipitously did not give the military time to consolidate the gains made on the battlefield. The fear now is that the Afghan army is simply not ready to take over security responsibilities in those areas cleared by the US military, inviting the Taliban to regroup and re-occupy them once the Americans have left.
Petreaus refused to endorse the president’s withdrawal plan, and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates only reluctantly backed it. On the other side of the debate, Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious as he and several key national security aides had been arguing since the decision to initiate the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 that a smaller force was needed. The argument between the two factions was over implementing a counterinsurgency strategy favored by Petreaus or a counterterrorism strategy advocated by the vice president. The president has now opted to back the Biden plan by withdrawing most American combat forces by 2014.
Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, explained the military’s reluctance for the large withdrawal ordered by the president. “[T]he fact is that the conditions on the ground don’t merit any sort of withdrawal — it’s not time to be pulling out a substantive amount of troops,” he said. Dressler pointed out that while substantial progress had been made in the south, eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border was still a trouble spot, and withdrawing troops would not improve the situation.
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