In a televised speech, US President Barack Obama is unveiling his plan to start bringing US troops back home from Afghanistan in a first decisive step toward ending an increasingly unpopular, decade-long conflict.
AFP - President Barack Obama will use a prime time speech Wednesday to order a US troop drawdown from Afghanistan, which one official said would likely see 10,000 soldiers back in America this year.
The White House address may also come to be seen as the moment when the United States began to disengage from Afghanistan, after a bloody and sometimes inconsistently waged decade-long war and nation-building effort.
Obama will stick with his vow to begin pulling out US forces after an 18-month troop surge, but apparently heed Pentagon warnings that an overly swift withdrawal could imperil hard-won gains against Taliban insurgents.
A senior defense official said on condition of anonymity that the president would "likely" order the return of about 5,000 troops this summer and 5,000 more by the end of the year.
Another 20,000 troops, part of a 30,000-strong surge ordered in December 2009, would be withdrawn by the end of next year, meaning elevated force levels would remain through two more Afghan summer fighting seasons.
The figure of 10,000 troops to be pulled out, if confirmed, appears higher than the "modest" initial homecoming the Pentagon had originally advocated, as Obama walks a delicate line between political and strategic logic.
The president's broadcast at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) comes as attitudes shift on the war following the killing of Osama bin Laden, other heavy blows against Al-Qaeda and the waning of US public support for the conflict.
"The president will address the nation from the White House to lay out his plan for implementing his strategy -- first unveiled in December 2009 -- to draw down American troops from Afghanistan," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
War skeptics argue that after the deaths of more than 1,600 US service personnel and at a cost of nearly $10 billion a month, the American commitment is unsustainable at its present size of 99,000 US troops.
Carney branded a flurry of media reports on the size of the drawdown as mere speculation and refused to divulge details of the president's decision, which was finalized earlier Tuesday.
Obama promised Americans when he unveiled the surge that he would begin to bring soldiers home in July 2011 -- a vow critics panned as offering succor to US enemies.
The months leading up to the drawdown decision have seen a turf war that has drawn in Obama's political team, Pentagon brass and lawmakers keenly aware of voter fatigue after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin reiterated his argument that improved security conditions would permit Obama to bring home 15,000 combat troops by the end of the year.
"The level of US 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.
Another powerful Democrat, Senator John Kerry, said Obama needed to change the US emphasis in Afghanistan.
"We've been enormously successful in stripping Al-Qaeda of its capacity. And we need to reflect that now in the troop presence and in the definition of the mission."
Obama's speech will come less than two months after a daring US raid into Pakistan killed bin Laden, the head of Al-Qaeda and the prime target of the US war on terror launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Since the Afghanistan mission was partly defined as an effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda, some war critics have questioned why America needs to keep such a large number of troops there.
Carney, however, argued that a key component of the mission was the need to stabilize Afghanistan so it would not revert to a haven for terror groups and could meet a 2014 deadline to assume control of its own security.
Obama is expected to explain that his surge has wrought slow but significant progress, particularly against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
But US discontent over the war is steadily rising, and Obama will be keenly aware of public opinion as he plots his 2012 reelection race.
In a new Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of respondents said US troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39 percent said they should stay in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized.
The decision on withdrawal has been complicated by the fragile outreach process Washington has launched with the Taliban.
Backers of the surge have said the Taliban will only countenance serious reconciliation talks if the group's commanders feel they are under pressure from a strong US military presence in Afghanistan.
Date created : 2011-06-22