U.S. troops examine confiscated weapons and ammunition during a raid in… (Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images )
President Obama has made a decision on the speed and size of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and will address the nation at 8 p.m. Wednesday on his plans, the White House announced Tuesday.
Speaking at his televised briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the president had made his decision but refused to discuss specifics. Carney said the process of deciding “was all about the mission that was laid out” by Obama in his 2009 speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
There are currently about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which 30,000 are part of the surge designed to help the Afghanistan security forces fight the Taliban. Obama is expected to announce that he will withdraw about 5,000 troops next month and another 5,000 by the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times reported. The remainder of the surge troops could come back to the United States by the end of 2012 or early 2013, depending on the status of the fight.
The size and speed of the withdrawal have become a political football between the military, which wants a small withdrawal, and some members of the Obama administration who want more troops out sooner. In Congress, there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have called for a substantial withdrawal sooner than the military has advised.
There is also, clearly, war weariness among the general public, according to polls. The latest survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that 56% of those polled said U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible; 39% said they favored keeping troops in Afghanistan until the situation stabilized. That represents an increase of 8 percentage points since last month, when terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, there is also a split along party lines as the presidential election cycle heats up. Two-thirds of Democrats, or 67%, said troops should be removed as soon as possible, up from 43% a year ago, according to the Pew poll. A majority of independents, 57%, said they supported an immediate troop withdrawal, an increase of 15 percentage points from last year.
Even Republicans, who support keeping troops in Afghanistan, have changed their stand. Last June, just 31% of Republicans favored a quick withdrawal; the current figure is 43%.
Given the political stakes, internationally as well as domestically, much of the attention will focus on the numbers that Obama uses. But equally important is how Obama updates his overall vision for the war, which he inherited from the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In his West Point speech, Obama explained his policy: “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”
To that end, Obama said the United States “must deny Al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.”
Obama on Wednesday is expected to argue that the United States has made significant progress. On Tuesday and Monday, Press Secretary Jay Carney gave reporters a taste of what was likely to be the administration’s theme in the next days.
“We have made significant progress toward achieving those goals,” Carney said on Monday. ”Obviously, the most sensational and significant data point in that progress ... is the elimination of Osama bin Laden. But there has been enormous progress in disrupting and dismantling Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region beyond and below Osama bin Laden. There has been significant progress in disrupting or halting the momentum of the Taliban and significant progress in stabilizing Afghanistan and the government to allow Afghan national security forces to build up, to train and prepare for taking over the lead.”
In outlining his plan for the region, Obama in 2009 coupled the surge of 30,000 troops with a promise “to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,” he said.
Obama also pledged to work toward a better civilian strategy with the Afghan people and to build a better relationship with Pakistan, key to the security of the region.
Since that speech, however, relations with Pakistan significantly worsened after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed. And the Afghans have not been easy to deal with. President Hamid Karzai has often been critical of the United States, and in kind, the U.S. has questioned Karzai’s effectiveness, especially when it comes to dealing with corruption.
Complicating those issues has been the need for a political solution that includes at least some elements of the Taliban, though U.S. officials have described any talks as in the preliminary stage.