President Obama greets troops at Ft. Drum in northern New York. He said his… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama's decision to break with his top Pentagon advisors and pull 33,000 troops from Afghanistan faster than they wanted is a calculated risk, balanced between domestic political pressure for even steeper force cuts and warnings that his move could lead to worsening conditions on the ground.
Militarily, Obama's gamble rests on two things: the capacity of Afghan security forces to hold on to territory that U.S.-led troops have cleared of Taliban control over the last year and the ability of U.S. drone attacks and special operations to keep pressure on Al Qaeda and its allies in key parts of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
U.S. commanders' doubts on those points went public Thursday, a day after Obama outlined his decision, as two senior officers told Congress they initially disagreed with Obama's timetable for troop withdrawals.
"The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Senators at his confirmation hearing to become head of the CIA that he had recommended keeping more troops in place longer, but had been overruled.
Both men said they now supported the decision, noting that Obama had to weigh more than just military considerations in deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan. But the degree to which they were willing to publicly express their reservations was unusual.
The test of Obama's decision is likely to come next summer, as the U.S. presidential election nears, when tens of thousands of U.S. troops are to begin leaving in the middle of the so-called fighting season, when the Afghan Taliban traditionally carries out most of its attacks. Many parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces are more secure now, but that is largely because of the presence of U.S. forces, which have blanketed areas that were once Taliban strongholds.
Military commanders say the drawdown could endanger security there and also affect their plans to shift focus from southern Afghanistan to the country's mountainous east. Insurgents remain much more potent in the east, using sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan to plan and mount suicide attacks and even occasional frontal assaults on Afghan government army and police posts. U.S. commanders are hoping to choke off infiltration routes, but the troop reduction could force them to scale back those plans.
The drawdown also could force the U.S. to rely more on drone strikes against hide-outs in Pakistan used by Afghan insurgents and their Pakistani allies. Drone aircraft, which could be flown from bases in Afghanistan, would be especially crucial if cooperation with Pakistan's military continues to decline. U.S. relations with Pakistan have plummeted since the U.S. raid against Osama bin Laden's compound, which deeply embarrassed the Pakistani military.
Even as U.S. military officials chafed at the planned rapid pace of the withdrawal, the political pressures on Obama were obvious as a long line of Democrats, and some Republicans, argued that he should pull troops out even faster. Some suggested the entire "surge" of 33,000 additional troops the president ordered deployed in late 2009 should be removed by the end of this year.
Other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2012, criticized Obama for overruling his commanders.
When McCain pressed Petraeus about whether it now would be more difficult for his successor to achieve his mission in Afghanistan, a clearly uncomfortable Petraeus answered that he could not provide "a direct answer," but he acknowledged that there would be "further challenges by not getting all the way through the fighting season."
Some Obama advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden, pushed for a faster timetable because of their skepticism about an Afghan counterinsurgency, a view that Obama seems to have become more sympathetic to. Biden and others have argued that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the current center of the threat from Al Qaeda.
White House aides appeared unconcerned about the military criticism. Indeed, some appeared to hope that putting some distance between Obama and the military on a key issue might help the president rebut a criticism he has faced within his party: that he has been too accommodating of the Pentagon's desire for more troops and a deeper engagement in the nearly decade-long conflict.