The Obama administration on Thursday began a full-court press to sell its Afghanistan policy to a somewhat skeptical American people and Congress, arguing that a withdrawal of troops was made possible by the success of the surge.
“We have broken the Taliban’s momentum,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We do begin this drawdown from a position of strength.”
Clinton echoed the position outlined by President Obama in his Wednesday night address to the nation. The president said he would withdraw 5,000 troops next month and 5,000 more by the end of the year. The remainder of the surge troops, about 23,000, will be withdrawn in 2012, leaving about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2014.
Photos: The war in Afghanistan
Obama is scheduled to visit Ft. Drum in upstate New York later Thursday, meeting with members of the 10th Mountain Division, which has had many deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. He is expected to thank the troops and may speak again about his policy in dealing with those wars.
While Clinton testified before the Senate panel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee that the president’s withdrawal timetable was risky, but that he supported the plan.
“The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” Mullen said, adding that keeping more troops in Afghanistan longer would have been a safer.
But that course also would have had problems, such as increasing the Afghan government's dependence on the United States.
In explaining the troop withdrawal Wednesday night, Obama noted that he was keeping the promise that he made in 2009 when he ordered the surge of 30,000 troops. The added American presence was designed to give Afghanistan more time to develop its own security forces to deal with the Taliban.
But the almost-decade-long war has become an irritant. Polls generally show that a majority of Americans favor withdrawing troops faster. In Congress, the war has caused splits in both parties.
House Democrats, for example, greeted the president’s timetable with a degree of coolness.
“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,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Republicans were also having problems, with splits between those, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who generally back the military and favor a robust use of U.S. forces and others, such as presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who oppose that type of U.S. role on the world stage.
FormerMassachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who most polls tab as the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, complained that Obama had imposed an “arbitrary timetable” on withdrawal, a frequent complaint from conservatives whom he needs to win the nomination.
One of the more liberal responses from a Republican came from former Utah Gov. and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who this week announced his bid for the party's presidential nomination. He argued that the Afghanistan mission should be focused on counter-terrorism, which he said would need even fewer than the almost 70,000 troops Obama said would remain in Afghanistan for two more years. When Obama took office, the U.S. had about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan.
In his speech, Obama argued that anti-terrorism successes, including the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a May raid in Pakistan, made a troop withdrawal possible. Echoing many of the same themes that he sounded in 2009, Obama said the United States would also press Afghanistan and Pakistan to do more in fighting terrorist groups.
But the president also spent a fair amount of his 14-minute speech stressing domestic issues and politics as he tried to carve out a centrist course between calls to leave and demands to stay in Afghanistan. The cost of the war is running about $120 billion a year, expenditures that come amid increasing calls to use government money to deal with a sluggish domestic economy.
Obama said it was time “to focus on nation-building here at home.”