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Americas

Obama unveils US troop withdrawals

Video by Jonathan CRANE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-06-23

US President Barack Obama said all of the 33,000 additional US troops he ordered in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by the summer of 2012 in a primetime speech detailing the start of a much-awaited troop drawdown, signalling a major strategy shift.

In a much-awaited primetime speech announcing the start of US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said all of the 33,000 additional or “surge” forces would be pulled out by the summer of 2012 as the “tide of war” was receding.

Speaking from the East Room of the White House Wednesday at 8 pm local time, Obama said 10,000 of the surge troops would be withdrawn by the end of the year. The remaining 23,000 would leave Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, he added.

The US currently has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, including the surge troops that were dispatched following Obama’s 2009 speech at the West Point military academy in New York.

In his latest speech, Obama said the remaining US troops would be coming home “at a steady pace” until 2014, when the “process of transition will be complete and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

Referring to his 2009 order to send additional troops to Afghanistan as “one of the most difficult decisions” of his presidency, Obama detailed the goals of the surge strategy, namely to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and to train Afghan security forces.

“Tonight I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment,” said Obama. “We are meeting our goals.”

Drawing a line under the past and looking to the future

In a 13-minute speech that had several references to last month’s killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Obama stressed that the drawdown was starting “from a position of strength,” noting that “al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11”.

In a message to the Pakistani authorities, Obama said his administration would work with the Pakistani government to root out “the cancer of violent extremism and we will insist that it keep its commitments.”

Looking back on what he called “a difficult decade for our country,” Obama acknowledged the high human and economic costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, he added, “tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.”

Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24’s Malcolm Brown said the speech was all about drawing a line under the past and looking forward to a more pragmatic future.

“What was most interesting was the tone of the speech and how he moved beyond the operations in Afghanistan and tried to set this in a wider context,” said Brown. “President Obama was setting out his international ethos, his version of a more pragmatic foreign policy.”

Compromise between hawks and doves

Reflecting a major war strategy shift, Obama’s troop withdrawal levels are deeper and faster than the recommendations made by senior US military officials, reflecting the increasing political and economic pressures Obama faces ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.

Obama’s withdrawal plan marks a compromise between senior Pentagon officials - who urged him to keep troop numbers high in order to consolidate the military gains on the ground - and White House staff who favoured a faster troop reduction that would send a signal to voters ahead of next year’s election.

The conflict in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with an American public grown weary of a 10-year war that has cost more than 1,500 US lives and a war bill estimated at $2 billion a week.

A Pew Research poll released earlier this week found 56 percent of Americans favour bringing US forces in Afghanistan home as soon as possible.

Gates supports Obama’s decision

Outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - along with Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus – had pushed for an initial withdrawal of between 3,000 to 5,000 troop this year, according to US media reports. Pentagon officials argued that they needed the extra troops for another full fighting season - or the summer of 2012 - which would mean a withdrawal starting in the autumn or winter of 2012.

But responding to Obama’s speech late Wednesday, Gates said he backed the president’s withdrawal plan.

"I support the president's decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion," said Gates in a statement released shortly after the speech.

But the drawdown is unlikely to convince a spectrum of military officials, politicians and analysts who fear a rapid troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would undermine the military gains on the ground and further destabilise the fragile country.

"We've undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer's fighting season," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The US military presence has not been particularly popular with senior Afghan leaders with Afghan President Hamid Karzai openly criticising the US “occupation” - much to the chagrin of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

The original mission of the war in Afghanistan was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda” following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. With the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, critics of the Afghan war renewed their calls for an end to the conflict arguing that al Qaeda inside Afghanistan had been defeated.

The US is currently in “preliminary talks” with the Taliban, Gates confirmed over the weekend in the first official acknowledgment of contact with the hardline Islamist group. But the talking to the Taliban strategy has not been welcomed by all sections of Afghan society.

 

Date created : 2011-06-23

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