President Obama said Wednesday night that he will withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next summer — in time for the presidential election campaign season and against the advice of top military advisers.
“We are meeting our goals,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised address from the White House. “Our mission will change from combat to support.”
Mr. Obama is ordering about 5,000 troops to pull out beginning next month and another 5,000 by the end of this year. The remainder of the 33,000-troop “surge” that the president ordered in December 2009 will be brought home before September 2012.
The president also laid out a new philosophy for the nation’s role as the world’s unrivaled military power, after costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
“This decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world,” Mr. Obama said. “When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.”
Mr. Obama argued for a new doctrine that gives more deference to the heavy cost of defending the United States against global Islamist extremism in an era of huge budget deficits.
“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” said Mr. Obama, who pushed through an $821 billion economic recovery plan in 2009. “Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
White House officials have denied that political considerations affected the president’s decision, but Mr. Obama also used his nationally televised address to announce two economic plums for his home base: a NATO summit and the next Group of Eight conference in Chicago, both in May 2012.
Mr. Obama is facing enormous hurdles as he approaches his re-election campaign, including a jobless rate of 9.1 percent. His job-approval rating this week plummeted to 43 percent in one poll.
A Pew Research poll released Tuesday showed 56 percent of those surveyed want U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible, up from 40 percent one year ago. And some Republican presidential candidates are calling for an even swifter withdrawal of troops.
Mr. Obama had set a timetable of July 2011 for beginning to withdraw troops if conditions on the ground warranted it. The president said the military surge had achieved the goals of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum and starting to train Afghan security forces to take control of their country.
“We believe the president is making this decision from a position of success and strength,” said a senior administration official.
But the pace of troop withdrawal is much more rapid than recommended by retiring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who favors a pullout of only a few thousand troops this year. Mr. Gates and many senior military brass are concerned that too rapid a withdrawal will threaten the loss of security gains achieved in the past 18 months.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the president’s plan “may have the consequences of undermining a very successful strategy.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he hoped that Mr. Obama would continue to “listen to the commanders on the ground.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the president’s plan “poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far.”
“This is not the ‘modest’ withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated,” Mr. McCain said.
The administration is under growing pressure from lawmakers of both parties to scale down the 10-year-old war in the country that provided a haven for the plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed, and it’s costing taxpayers about $10 billion per month.
Some in Congress now call the nation’s debt crisis a bigger security threat than Al Qaeda.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said many lawmakers hoped the withdrawal “would happen sooner than the president laid out — and we will continue to press for a better outcome.”
Mr. Obama also set forth a framework for a political settlement in Afghanistan as the troop withdrawal proceeds, including talks with Taliban leaders. “Our position on these talks is clear,” he said. “They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from Al Qaeda, abandon violence and abide by the Afghan Constitution.”
The surge has enabled NATO forces to make significant gains in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which were Taliban strongholds. Lawmakers said Mr. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, were pushing for an initial drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops this year. There are now about 100,000 troops there.
Senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity prior to the president’s speech, said Afghanistan has not posed a threat of a terrorist attack against the United States for at least seven years. They said the primary threat is from al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, where a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden about seven weeks ago.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. “will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region.” But the president didn’t provide specifics on how he intends to persuade Pakistan.
“This [drawdown] is not going to increase the threat,” an administration official said. “And it’s not going to affect at all the threat in Pakistan, either. Right now, the al Qaeda threat does come from Pakistan. That is where they are hunkered down.”
As for Chicago landing two conferences, much of the credit goes to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former chief of staff. A senior administration official said the White House considered other U.S. cities, but he acknowledged, “It wasn’t a very wide net that was cast.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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