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Obama outlines Afghan pullback

10,000 troops to leave this year

The president gave a 15-minute address. The president gave a 15-minute address. (AFP/ Getty Images)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / June 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama announced last night that he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and an additional 23,000 by next summer, declaring that the United States has “put Al Qaeda on a path to defeat.’’

In a prime-time, 15-minute White House address to the nation, Obama simultaneously heralded the achievements of the “surge’’ he ordered 18 months ago and underscored his push for a responsible US exit by 2014.

“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,’’ he said, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.’’

The withdrawal of 10,000 troops by the end of this year had been expected, but the president set a quicker timetable for the rest of the surge forces to come home than some of his top commanders had hoped for.

Obama said this was possible because successful counterterrorism operations by the United States and Pakistan had “taken out more than half’’ of Al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden. He also said that it is time to seek reconciliation with some elements of the Taliban, saying that a nascent peace process offered hope that most would stop fighting the Afghan government and renounce Al Qaeda.

He outlined a limited vision for success in Afghanistan — and for the US role in the world.

“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,’’ he said. “We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people.’’

But Obama’s plan would still leave 68,000 troops in Afghanistan during the fall of 2012, when the presidential campaign will be in a fever pitch.

And his speech came as an increasing number of Americans, including some in his administration and in Congress, are arguing that Afghanistan is no longer a vital US security interest, especially at a time of financial crisis at home.

The president acknowledged the deficit and economic pressures.

“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,’’ he said.

But last night, antiwar liberals and fiscal conservatives complained that Obama’s drawdown isn’t fast enough.

“The mood here is changing,’’ said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, who is among the most vigorous opponents of the war. “We are having fights on the House floor about whether to take away Mrs. O’Leary’s home heating oil check, but at the same time, we are [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai’s corrupt government’s ATM machine.’’

Ten years of war in Afghanistan has cost the United States more than $444 billion and the lives of 1,633 American troops, according to icasualties.org. More than 900 other NATO soldiers have died, along with many thousands of Afghans.

Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to end the war in Iraq and “win the war in Afghanistan,’’ could face pointed questions from supporters of the US effort about whether peace talks with the Taliban amount to capitulation to their demands and whether Afghanistan will be ready to stand on its own in 2014, when the last US combat forces are slated to leave.

In Afghanistan, talk of a US withdrawal has sparked violent jockeying for power between various factions, and widespread fears of a return to the chaos of the 1980s that spawned the Taliban.

“The withdrawal and the discussions around withdrawal have already had a major psychological impact on the political scene in Afghanistan,’’ said Candace Rondeaux, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Kabul. “All the players began playing musical chairs with themselves to get the greatest strategic advantage, and [in] the last three months the violence has gone up.’’

All seven areas in Afghanistan that the United States plans to hand over to Afghan control soon have been hit with attacks by the Taliban, and about six key politicians who are not from the Pashtun tribe that dominates the Taliban have been assassinated, Rondeaux said.

The civilian death toll in May was the highest on record, with the vast majority of the deaths at the hands of the Taliban.

When Obama announced the second of his two troop surges in December 2009, he set a deadline for this July to begin the withdrawal but said the size of the pullout would be determined by conditions on the ground.

A key rationale behind the additional troops was the need to weaken the Taliban enough to bring them to the negotiating table and ensure that the fledgling Afghan security forces could contain them.

Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that plan was working.

“Everybody agrees that the surge created the space to move to the next stage,’’ he said. Obama had to leave that number of troops on the ground to be able to have leverage during peace negotiations, Kerry said, but he also had to announce a plan for withdrawal, to get the Afghans to step up to their responsibility. “You have to begin to transition or you will be in an interminable state of dependency,’’ he said.

But others said the Obama administration has been sending mixed messages.

US forces have made military gains in the Afghan south, the strategic fulcrum for coalition efforts in the war.

US military leaders, including General David Petraeus, commander of NATO and US forces, have been pressing for even more time and troops to take on the Al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network in the eastern part of the country.

Meanwhile, the State Department has begun the first-ever face-to-face meetings with top Taliban leaders, and even moved to separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda on a UN sanctions list, viewed as a step toward taking some Taliban leaders off the list. That is a key Taliban demand.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank, said too much attention is being placed on the number of troops and not enough on the endgame of how to get the various armed factions in Afghanistan to transition to peace.

“It’s not like we are going to have a White House signing ceremony with [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar on the White House lawn, and the war will be over,’’ Katulis said.

Administration officials, speaking on background earlier yesterday, said that in the future, terrorism would be defeated by surgical forces with small footprints — like the team that killed bin Laden in Pakistan — rather than large-scale military invasions. That view, long pushed by Vice President Joe Biden, appears to have won favor in the White House.

They also said Afghanistan had not been an international threat for more than seven years, with fewer than 75 Al Qaeda operatives believed to be there.

The modest drawdown that will continue throughout the election season will allow Obama to offer Americans hope for an end to the conflict in Afghanistan without having to grapple with the difficult question of what kind of country US forces will leave behind.

“Although the US and its allies are by no means winning the Afghanistan war, the president can’t afford the risk of being charged with losing it,’’ said Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.