The broad outline: Of the roughly 100,000 US forces in Afghanistan today, 5,000 would begin coming out this summer, followed by another 5,000 by the end of the year. By the end of next summer, another 23,000 would return to bases in Europe and the United States – in essence a total drawdown of the 33,000-troop “surge” ordered by Obama in 2009.
“We are meeting our goals…. We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” Mr. Obama said. “Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11.”
Officials say Obama is not simply splitting the difference between the recommendation of military leaders (including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan recently named as CIA director) and the faster withdrawal favored by many in Congress as well as the public.
They’re careful not to present this as a “mission accomplished” moment. But in a background briefing shortly before Obama’s speech Wednesday evening, senior administration officials pointed to “substantial progress” in the goals set under the surge:
Safe havens for the Taliban – which had been expanding when Obama took office – have been degraded if not eliminated to the point where recruiting has become a problem for the Taliban. This has helped essentially eliminate Afghanistan as a source of transnational terrorist threats by al Qaeda.
“We haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years,” a senior administration official said in Wednesday’s briefing.
Meanwhile, many in al Qaeda’s core leadership have been killed or captured – including most prominently Osama bin Laden.
“We have taken a significant number of key senior leaders off of the battlefield – in addition to bin Laden, individuals like Saeed al-Masri and others who have been critical to al Qaeda’s operational and organizational capabilities over the last dozen years,” said the senior official. “This has had an impact on their operational capabilities.”
With the Taliban under attack by US-led forces and safe havens degraded or eliminated, plus better training levels among Afghan security forces, officials say, this has meant more opportunities to seek reconciliation with the Taliban.
“Today, thanks to the pressure delivered by the surge, we’re in active support of Afghan initiatives to reach out to the Taliban and explore what might be possible by way of a political settlement,” said the senior official. “Our red lines, our conditions for such a political settlement, have been clarified and agreed with the Karzai government and with our allies. And there are openings today that simply didn’t exist 18 months ago.”
Whether or not the beginning of a troop drawdown in Afghanistan – as outlined in Obama’s speech Wednesday night – can satisfy growing public weariness with the war is a very big political question.
“The percentage of Americans who favor removing the troops as soon as possible has reached an all-time high,” according to a Pew Research Center report this week. “For the first time, a majority (56 percent) says that US troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39 percent favor keeping troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized.”
While most Americans still believe that the US made the right decision in using force in Afghanistan, two-thirds of Democrats and 57 percent of Independents “now say troops should be removed as soon as possible,” according to Pew, up from 43 percent last year. The situation among Republicans tracks the same.
“Over the past year, support for withdrawing the troops has doubled among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party,” reports Pew. “A year ago only 21 percent favored immediate troop withdrawal; that has risen to 42 percent currently.”
Officials acknowledge that any threat from al Qaeda has shifted to Pakistan, Yemen, and other areas. While US forces are likely to remain in Afghanistan for some years, the overall effort shifts from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism – likely to include greater use of pilotless drone aircraft and smaller units of Special Operations forces.
Said one of the senior administration officials at Wednesday’s background briefing:
“The President’s guidance to us is very clear: Stay on the offense against al Qaeda, wherever they manifest. Make sure that we are investing the resources in a way that is durable, but that addresses the principal threats this country faces. And … refocusing our attention on the threat by al Qaeda. As we squeeze that threat by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’re going to look for other opportunities, be that in Yemen, be that in the Horn of Africa, be that in Southeast Asia. So we’re going to stay on the offense against them there.”
But for now, Obama is taking the opportunity to note the winding down of the two wars he inherited – for one of which he more than doubled the US investment in troops and finances.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said. “Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We have ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And 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.”