President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012.Speaking from the White House, he said it was “the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war”.Mr Obama’s announcement, after a month-long strategy review, outlined the exit of the forces he sent to the country at the end of 2009 as part of a “surge”.The reductions are larger and faster than military commanders had advised.They told the president that the recent security gains were fragile and reversible, and had urged him to keep troop numbers high until 2013.That would have given them another full “fighting season” – in addition to the one now under way – to attack Taliban strongholds and their leaders.Nevertheless, about 68,000 US troops will remain in Afghanistan. All US combat troops are scheduled to leave by 2013, provided that Afghan forces are ready to assume responsibility for security.Correspondents say the enormous cost of the deployment – currently more than $2bn a week – has attracted criticism from Congressional leaders, while the public are weary of a war that seems to have no end and has left at least 1,500 personnel dead and 12,000 wounded.There have also been changes on the ground, notably the killing in May of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan.In his speech, President Obama said he had set clear objectives for the surge in December 2009 – to refocus on al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country.His administration also stated the commitment would not be open-ended and that the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, he added.
“Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment.”Mr Obama said the US was starting the withdrawal “from a position of strength”.He said: “Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11… We have taken out more than half of al-Qaeda’s leadership. We have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.”In Afghanistan, we have inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of their strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilise more of the country.”He added: “After this initial reduction our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support.”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.”
The BBC’s Paul Adams in Washington says the speech was all about reassuring the American public that the “tide of war” was receding.Six thousand Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and $1 trillion has been spent. It was time, Mr Obama said, to focus on nation-building at home.”Even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end,” he added.The initial withdrawal is expected to happen in two phases, with 5,000 troops coming home this summer and another 5,000 by the end of the year. The reduction is the equivalent of about two brigades.The remainder of the surge reinforcements – 20,000 combat troops and an 3,000 deployed to support the operation – will be out by the end of September 2012, in time for the US presidential election.Our correspondent says this is a quicker pace than most analysts predicted, and suggests the president does not feel he needs to leave the bulk of the surge force in place for another fighting season.
Administration officials told the New York Times that the US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, had not endorsed the decision. He recommended limiting initial withdrawals and leaving in place as many combat forces for as long as possible, they said.Outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reluctantly accepted the reductions, the officials added.The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said he was pleased the president had recognised that success in Afghanistan was paramount.”Continuing to degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Afghanistan and the surrounding region must take priority over any calendar dates.
“It’s important that we retain the flexibility necessary to reconsider troop levels and respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant.”The Afghan defence ministry said earlier that it was ready to take responsibility for fighting the Taliban and securing the country.”We appreciate the efforts and sacrifices made by the foreign forces in Afghanistan, but at the same time we congratulate them for returning back to their homelands after a long period of war,” a spokesman said.”The Afghan National Army is ready to fill their space but they will face some problems in this area as they still lack weapons and equipment.”
Serious doubts remain about whether Afghan forces will be up to the task.Mr Obama’s announcement comes days after Mr Gates confirmed that the US was holding “outreach” talks with members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.It was the first time the US had acknowledged such contact.Meanwhile, a BBC World Service poll has suggested that most people internationally support negotiations with the Taliban.Forty percent of the 24,000 people in 24 countries surveyed backed peace talks and said the Taliban should be included in an Afghan government.The poll, which was conducted before Bin Laden was killed, suggested that support for an immediate military pullout by Nato stood at 29%. Just 16% favoured a continued effort to defeat the Taliban. – BBC