(Photo: Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Calling his ordering of additional 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan “one of the most difficult decisions [he had] made as president,” President Barack Obama announced Wednesday night that 10,000 of the troops would be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2011.
By next summer, a total of 33,000 troops will return home, fully recovering the “surge” he had announced in his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2009, in which he had promised that the transfer of American forces out of Afghanistan would begin in July 2011.
“Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment. Thanks to our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals,” Obama said in his prime time speech.
Obama also confirmed that by 2014 all American troops would leave Afghanistan even as Afghan forces took charge of their country’s security.
This, the president stated, would signify the change in American mission in Afghanistan “from combat to support.”
In the nationally televised speech, Obama implied that the time was right to begin the phased drawdown as both the Taliban and al-Qaida had been significantly weakened, though he agreed huge challenges still remained.
“We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government,” he said.
Even as the president made the announcement on an expected line, political reactions have been sharp and telling.
"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. "We will continue to press for a better outcome,” CBS News reported.
The same news outlet quoted her fellow House Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut as saying “the president’s proposal does not go far enough.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said continuing to degrade al-Qaida must "take priority over any calendar dates,” as reported by USA Today.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence committee, told ABC News that he was “concerned about the president’s plan to begin troop withdrawal in Afghanistan” and said President Obama made the wrong decision.
“We also risk letting the Taliban regain ground they lost in the last fighting season, because we will be able to cover less ground. There is also the risk this drawdown will send the wrong message to both the Taliban and our Afghan allies that U.S. commitment to finish the job is wavering,” he said.
Obama’s speech also highlighted the path his foreign and domestic policy is likely to take in the coming months.
With regard to American policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Obama said: “As we strengthen the Afghan government and Security Forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al-Qaida, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution.”
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. 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,” the president said.
However, commentators have pointed out that Obama did not make a long-term commitment to assist Afghanistan. “Without such a commitment, Afghanistan, its neighbors and its enemies will likely interpret President Obama's statement as indicating a complete withdrawal,” the U.K.’s Guardian noted.
Obama also focused on America’s relationship with Pakistan, which recently became strained given America’s unilateral strike that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan territory.
He underlined the need to continue to engage Pakistan in containing and fighting global terrorism.
“No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments,” Obama said.
In this short speech, which lasted about 12 minutes, President Obama did not fail to mention the underlying philosophy of American engagement with the world. According to the president, it must not “embrace … isolation” nor must it be geared toward “over-extending ourselves.”
“We must chart a more centered course,” he said.
He also championed comprehensive international action, as is happening in Libya where, Obama said, “We do not have a single soldier on the ground.”
Obama said that Americans have “learned anew the profound cost of war – a cost that has been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan” but now “the tide of war is receding.”
Earlier, concerns were raised as to how the Afghanistan security forces might respond to probable surge in violence following the drawdown.
The Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi was confident that Afghan security forces were capable to deal with any aftermath of the proposed drawdown. “There will be some battles, there will be suicide attacks, and bomb attacks,” he told The Associated Press, “but we in the Afghan forces are prepared to replace the foreign forces and I’m confident the army has enough capacity and ability.”