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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama announces Afghanistan troop withdrawal plan.



STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: President Obama announces all 33,000 "surge" troops will withdraw by September 2012
  • NEW: The withdrawal will begin next month, with 10,000 troops leaving Afghanistan this year
  • NEW: After the withdrawal, almost 70,000 U.S. forces will still be in Afghanistan
  • NEW: Senior administration officials say the surge's success allows the withdrawal to begin
Check out the Afghanistan Crossroads blog for more on the Afghan conflict.
Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama announced Wednesday night that all of the 33,000 additional U.S. forces he ordered to Afghanistan in December 2009 would be home within the next 15 months.
In a nationally televised address from the East Room of the White House, Obama said 10,000 of the so-called "surge" forces would withdraw by the end of this year, and the other 23,000 would leave Afghanistan by September 2012.
The troop withdrawals will begin next month, as promised when Obama ordered the surge in a speech 18 months ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
After the departure of all the surge forces, the total U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan would be just under 70,000 troops.
Obama's 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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It also would bring the surge troops home before the November 2012 election in which Obama will seek a second term.
According to senior administration officials, the troop surge fulfilled a strategy to refocus the U.S. war effort from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Due to the surge, the officials told reporters, the military mission in Afghanistan has made great progress toward its objectives of dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in the region while stabilizing the country to prevent it from again being a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the United States.
The killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in early May and the success in reversing Taliban momentum in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar enabled the beginning of a troop withdrawal that will culminate with handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014, the senior administration officials said on condition of not being identified.
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, according to a congressional source. Gates also urged the president to withdraw support troops only -- not combat troops.
Obama, however, ultimately decided to adopt a more aggressive withdrawal plan. The senior administration officials said Obama's withdrawal schedule fell within the range of options presented to him by Petraeus, who has been nominated to become CIA director to succeed Leon Panetta, who will take over as defense secretary when Gates steps down at the end of the month.

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 bin Laden, pollsters said.
Republicans -- who have been the strongest supporters of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- are shifting their opinion on the conflict. In May, 47% of Republicans said they favored a partial or full withdrawal of American troops. That figure rose to 60% 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, adding that political leaders shouldn't "jeopardize the success that we've made."
But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic 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 Obama announced would bring a savings of about $7 billion in fiscal year 2012.
CNN's Aliza Kassim, Barbara Starr, Ted Barrett, Deirdre Walsh, Tom Cohen, Alan Silverleib and Brianna Keilar contributed to this report.