President Obama is considering options that vary from a proposal made by Pentagon to withdraw only 5,000 troops this year to an aggressive plan to pull out within 12 months all 30,000 troops the United States deployed to Afghanistan as part of the surge in December 2009.
President can announce a final date for the withdrawal of all the surge forces in 2012, but he can leave the timetable for incremental reductions up to commanders in the field — much as he did in drawing down troops after the surge in Iraq.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday: “He’s finalizing his decision. He’s reviewing his options.” But even when Obama finalizes those plans, there are deep divisions in his administration, as military leaders favor only a gradual reduction in troops while other advisers advocate a significant decrease in the coming months.
Military commanders support keeping as many of those forces in Afghanistan for as long as possible. They argue that if to perform a withdrawal too fast it could undermine the fragile security gains in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda training ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some senior White House officials advocate a plan under which 15,000 troops would return by the end of this year and the other 15,000 by the end of 2012, said an official who was briefed on the deliberations. Backers of this timetable include retired Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s senior adviser on Afghanistan.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long pushed for the United States to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan, favors a plan under which all 30,000 troops would be pulled out within 12 months.
Retiring Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said he believes the initial drawdown should be “modest”. “Whatever decision he makes,” Mr. Gates said Sunday on CNN, “we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan.”
In an acknowledgment that Mr. Obama is under pressure to begin a significant withdrawal, as he promised he would when he announced the surge in 2009, Mr. Gates said, “The drawdown must be politically credible here at home.”
Twenty-seven senators, Democrats as well as Republicans, sent Obama a letter last week pressing for a shift in Afghanistan strategy and major troop cuts. “Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops,” the senators wrote. “The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits.”
Obama has tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office, bringing the total there to about 100,000. The 30,000 troop surge he announced at the end of 2009 came with the condition that he would start bringing forces home in July 2011.
The White House said Mr. Obama would visit the Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York on Thursday. Fort Drum is home to the 10th Mountain Division, which has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. [via The New York Times, CBC and The Washington Post]