US President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered all 33,000 US surge troops home from Afghanistan by next summer and declared the beginning of the end of the war, vowing to turn to nation building at home.
In a watershed moment for US foreign policy, Obama also significantly curtailed US war aims, saying Washington would no longer try to build a “perfect” Afghanistan from a nation traumatized by decades of war.
“The tide of war is receding,” Obama said in a 13-minute prime time speech addressed to a US public increasingly fatigued by costly foreign wars and weighed down with economic insecurity.
“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,” Obama said.
The president said US forces had made large strides toward the objectives of the troop surge strategy he ordered in December 2009 by reversing Taliban momentum, crushing al-Qaeda and training new Afghan forces.
However, he ultimately rejected appeals from the Pentagon for a slower drawdown to safeguard gains against the Taliban and his decision will be seen as a political defeat for the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
Obama said he would, as promised, begin the US withdrawal next month and that 10,000 of the more than 30,000 troops he committed to the escalation of the conflict would be home this year.
A further 23,000 surge troops will be withdrawn by next summer and more yet-to-be announced drawdowns will continue until Afghan forces assume security responsibility in 2014.
“This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama said.
However, despite Obama’s stirring words, it is possible that the Taliban — which dismissed the announced withdrawal as a “symbolic step” — will be emboldened by signs of an accelerated US exit.
More than 1,600 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including at least 187 this year alone.
Despite Pentagon appeals for a more modest drawdown, outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he backed the plan, adding that it “provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”
The president spoke against the backdrop of growing domestic questioning of the purpose of the war, especially following the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month.
Obama expressed support for fragile Afghan reconciliation talks with the Taliban, saying they could make progress “in part because of our military effort.”
However, despite the drawdowns, there will still be more than 65,000 troops in Afghanistan when Obama seeks a second term in next year’s November elections.
Turning to al-Qaeda, Obama said documents seized from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan showed the organization was under “enormous strain.”
One official said the US operation against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions had “exceeded our expectations,” saying 20 of the group’s top 30 leaders had been killed in the last year.
With US-Pakistan ties still raw after the bin Laden raid, Obama said he would insist Islamabad keep its commitments to fight the “cancer” of violent extremism.
Obama’s plans drew a mixed reaction.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the partial withdrawal was a “natural result” of progress on the ground.
“We can see the tide is turning. The Taliban are under pressure. The Afghan security forces are getting stronger every day and the transition to Afghan security lead is on track to be completed in 2014,” he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also welcomed the announcement, as did US allies Germany and France, which said they would embark on similar withdrawals.
However, hawkish Republican Senator John McCain said Obama was taking an “unnecessary risk” and that Petraeus and Gates had recommended a slower withdrawal.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, suggested Obama’s motivation was political, saying: “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable.”
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