By Sam Youngman - 06/23/11 12:26 AM EDT
President Obama announced Wednesday he is ending the Afghanistan “surge” by withdrawing 10,000 troops by the end of the year, promising an end to the war is near.
In a prime-time address, Obama said another 23,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of September 2012 after a decade-long conflict increasingly unpopular with American voters and lawmakers from both parties.
“And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance,” the president continued. “These long wars will come to a responsible end.”
The 33,000-troop surge will come home with Obama in the thick of a reelection battle, and only 68,000 troops will remain on the ground on Afghanistan in November 2012. Obama said U.S. soldiers will continue to come home at an unspecified pace until allied forces complete the transition to Afghan-led security by 2014.
A number of reports have suggested Obama’s decision rebuffed the wishes of the military and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Military leaders wanted to keep the surge going for a longer time, according to these reports, to ensure progress in the country did not slide backward.
White House officials disputed that assessment, saying Petraeus presented the president with range of options that included “options that went beyond what the president settled on” in terms of troop withdrawals.
“The president's decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team,” one official said.
In his address, Obama also touted the surge as a success, saying it had halted the Taliban’s momentum and gone a long way toward achieving the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda.
The decision comes less than two months after the successful mission Obama ordered into neighboring Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, whose attacks on the U.S. led to an invasion of Afghanistan. Obama described bin Laden as "the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known."
“This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11,” Obama said.
Officials signaled the withdrawal of troops will be highlighted by Obama when he goes to voters next year.
When Obama took office, senior administration officials noted about 180,000 combat troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. With the drawdowns in both theaters, that number should fall below 100,000 by the end of this year from the estimated 150,000 that are now deployed.
The White House painted a picture of a surge that has met with great success in Afghanistan, with officials saying Obama was announcing the drawdown plans from a “position of strength.”
Officials said there is “no evidence” that al Qaeda in Afghanistan has any capability of launching an attack on the U.S. or its allies, and the drawdown “is not going to increase that threat.”
The president said Wednesday night that intelligence recovered from computers at bin Laden's compound “shows al Qaeda under enormous strain.”
“Bin Laden expressed concern that al Qaeda has been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that have been killed and that al Qaeda has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam – thereby draining more widespread support.
“Al Qaeda remains dangerous, and we must be vigilant against attacks," Obama said. "But we have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done."
Obama held three meetings with his national-security team over the last week, and he has been calling members of Congress to discuss his decision, the officials said.
They also said Obama spent much of Wednesday telling foreign leaders of his decision, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Obama's announcement came just hours after the Pew Research Center unveiled a new poll showing a majority of Americans — for the first time — want all U.S. forces removed from Afghanistan immediately.
Those numbers track with a poll by The Hill that found 72 percent of voters think the U.S. is involved in too many military interventions and want them reduced.
Voters also do not think having U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan has made the country safer, according to the poll by The Hill.
Opinion has also turned against the war in unlikely quarters, including the usually hawkish House Republican Conference and the field of GOP presidential contenders.
GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman on Wednesday criticized a 10,000-troop withdrawal as too cautious, and called for a larger reduction over the next year.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and other hawkish Republican lawmakers have undergone a collective shift on Afghanistan in recent weeks, a GOP aide told The Hill.
Once solid proponents of maintaining a large U.S. military presence there, these Republican members now favor a large drawdown and a shift toward a counterterrorism-based strategy, the aide said.
Hunter is “thinking about” a total U.S. footprint of between 15,000 and 20,000 forces, the Republican staffer said. “Time is running out … and once you lose public support, things become really difficult.”
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.