The United States will withdraw around 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by September 2012, President Barack Obama announced in a speech from the White House on Wednesday night.
Obama's plan to draw down the "surge" he put in place in 2009 would see 10,000 troops depart this year and another 23,000 next summer, a faster and larger withdrawal than the president's top military officials have recommended, according to reports.
The US currently has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. After the drawdown, around 68,000 will remain, but they will leave at a "steady pace," and by 2014 the United States will have turned over security responsibility to the Afghan security forces, Obama said.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, he has roughly tripled the size of the American force in Afghanistan, but in his speech, he argued that the mission - the longest war in American history - was coming to an end.
"We've inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country," he said. "Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities, we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people."
Obama: Political settlement will include Taliban
The Obama administration has argued that the surge, which the president announced in a December 2009 speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, has helped force the Taliban to accept negotiations with NATO forces and the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai.
In his speech, Obama said that only a political settlement, one that involves the Taliban, could bring peace to Afghanistan.
"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-Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution," he said. "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely."
But it is still unclear whether the Taliban will join talks while US forces remain on Afghan territory. Though America plans to transfer security responsibility by 2014, it continues to construct large bases throughout the country and will almost assuredly maintain a strong military presence for years after the official transfer date.
"[The Taliban] use a saying over here, that is, 'You have the watch, we have the time,'" said Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith, reporting from Kabul, the capital. "They may indeed ... be using the drawdown period to regroup themselves."
The ongoing fight against the Taliban has inevitably led to more killing: 650 of the 1,600 US soldiers who have been killed since the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 have died in the past 18 months of the surge.
Many times that number of Afghan civilians have died - at least 9,759 since 2006, according to the United Nations.
No al-Qaeda threat from Afghanistan
Though Obama said his surge was aimed primarily at combating al-Qaeda and preventing the Islamic extremist group from using Afghanistan as a safe haven, a senior administration official briefing reporters before the speech said the government has not seen a "terrorist threat" from Afghanistan in seven to eight years - long before Obama took office.
The official and others who spoke on a conference call with journalists said perhaps 50 to 75 al-Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan, and that there is no indication they intend to use the country as a base to attack the United States.
The primary al-Qaeda threat for the past two and a half years has come from within Pakistan, the official said.
"That is where they are hunkered down," he said.
Obama's plan 'reluctantly' accepted
General David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan and Obama's nominee to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did not endorse the drawdown plan, according to the New York Times. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates accepted it only "reluctantly," the newspaper reported.
News of Obama's decision, which began leaking in American press reports on Wednesday afternoon, prompted some criticism, but it is likely to be supported by the public, and Republican presidential candidates have called for an even faster withdrawal.
Danielle Pletka, writing for a blog of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the withdrawal "is an amazing decision to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory".
But 64 per cent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan, which is the longest in US history, is "no longer worth fighting," according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in May.
An even larger group, 73 per cent, support a "substantial withdrawal" of US troops next month.
The surge withdrawal falls within the pledges Obama made during his West Point address, when he promised to bring the troops home within 18 months and avoid a "nation-building project". He also tied the war in Afghanistan to the nation's faltering economy.
"We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy ... so we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars," he said.
The economy will likely loom as the predominant issue in this year's presidential campaign, Al Jazeera's Rosiland Jordan said.
"Many Americans are starting to say that the cost of the war - some $10 billion a month in Afghanistan - is money that could be better spent on bridges and roads and putting people back to work here in the US," she said.
"You also have to consider the cost of taking care of the survivors, those who suffered traumatic brain injury, those who lost arms of legs, those who lost part of all of their vision," she said.It could cost billions of dollars to treat all of the wounded Afghan war veterans if they live into their 60s and 70s.
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.'Tide of war receding'
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.Afghans 'ready'
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.
Obama Sets Afghan Rollback
Balancing Troop Demands of Military, Critics in Congress Leaves Neither Happy
By ADAM ENTOUS And JULIAN E. BARNES
President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, leaving the bulk of U.S. forces in place into the summer of 2012, when fighting is fiercest, but also signaling the beginning of the end of America's role in the 10-year war.
The announcement pleased neither Democrats in Congress who wanted a faster end to the costly and increasingly unpopular conflict, nor the Republicans and defense officials who had pushed hard to keep more troops in the fight for longer.
Mr. Obama faces reelection in November 2012, and some critics said the timeline he set for pulling out 33,000 surge troops—leaving about 70,000 troops in the country—was influenced by politics, a charge the White House strongly denied.
In his 13-minute televised address from the White House Wednesday evening, Mr. Obama said the pullout was justified by military gains against the Taliban insurgency and successful counter-terrorism strikes that have put al Qaeda "on a path to defeat" following the killing of Osama bin Laden last month.
"We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11," Mr. Obama said. "Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning—but not the end—of our effort to wind down this war."
Mr. Obama gave Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, leeway to determine how quickly to pull out the 10,000 troops this year, allowing him to delay major force reductions until after the current summer fighting season, when the Taliban is most active, a senior military official said.
Mr. Obama said all of the remaining 33,000 surge forces that began arriving in January 2010 would depart Afghanistan "by next summer." Officials said that meant the last of those troops would head for home between August and late September.
In an unusually blunt rebuke from a fellow Democrat, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said of Mr. Obama's decision: "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—and we will continue to press for a better outcome."
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said troop levels should be based on conditions on the ground. "Congress will hold the administration accountable for ensuring that the pace and scope of the drawdown does not undermine the progress we've made thus far," he said.
Administration officials said the risk of al Qaeda again using Afghanistan as a base for attacks against the U.S. or its allies was low, removing one of the main justifications for a large troop presence. "We don't see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan," one senior administration official said.
But Mr. Obama also signaled the U.S. drone campaign against militants in Pakistan would continue and said he would press Islamabad to step up its own efforts.
"There should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve," he said.
War costs figured centrally in Mr. Obama's decision. The U.S. spends an estimated $1 million a year for each service member in Afghanistan. The conflict has left more than 1,600 Americans dead and has cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $500 billion since 2001.
To preserve fighting power, field commanders will likely pull out support units first, leaving frontline troops in place as long as possible. Military officers say carefully managing the drawdown will allow them to expand operations next year into eastern Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border, where militant fighters take shelter.
"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," Mr. Obama said, underlining concerns about the weak U.S. economy.
Mr. Obama's decision to withdraw 10,000 troops this year was based on recommendations he received from Gen. Petraeus and other advisers. According to officials, Gen. Petraeus presented a total of three options to the president, and, along with departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, urged Mr. Obama to keep the final surge troops in the country until late in the fall of 2012. That would have allowed them to keep fighting until the cold weather brought combat to a natural lull.
Defense officials said the military would find ways to bring sufficient combat power to bear on the Taliban as long as possible under Mr. Obama's withdrawal plan.
Officials at the White House and Defense Department offered different interpretations of Mr. Obama's summer 2012 deadline. Defense officials said they understood that to mean all of the surge troops had to leave near the end of September. White House officials said they should be out "by September."
While both sides sought to play down the gap, some defense officials complained that Mr. Obama's end-of-summer deadline was driven more by the political calendar than the exigencies of war.
To get all surge troops out by the end of next summer, the military will have to start pulling them out in August, officials said. "We will lose at least two months of the fighting season," said a defense official.
Commanders had argued for a slow withdrawal of the surge troops to give the military more time to cement recent security gains in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
The drawdown from Afghanistan is similar in some ways to the pullout from Iraq. U.S. troops in Iraq peaked at around 171,000 during the 2007 surge, and have since dropped to under 50,000. The U.S. is scheduled to complete the withdrawal in December but could keep some forces in the country at the request of the Iraqi government. The Iraq war has cost more than $800 billion since its start in 2003.
When Mr. Obama announced the surge of 33,000 troops in December 2009, he promised to begin removing them from Afghanistan in July 2011. He said on Wednesday the drawdown would continue at a "steady pace" through the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are slated to assume responsibility for security. Mr. Obama did now spell out how many troops he envisaged leaving in Afghanistan after 2014 but said that the U.S. must chart a "more centered course" that does not rely on costly deployments of "large armies overseas."
The U.S. is eager to make sure the drawdown announcement wouldn't lead to a rush to the exits by its allies in Afghanistan.
Ahead of Mr. Obama's announcement, the U.K. said that around 200 of an expected 425 personnel Britain plans to remove from the country this year have already left.
British officials are considering a more substantial pullout. The U.K. provides the second-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan, with some 9,500 troops in country.—Carol E. Lee and Alistair MacDonald contributed
to this article.
Write to Adam Entous at email@example.com