* Obama to pull out ‘surge´ troops by Sept. 2012
* Focus on “nation building at home”
* Serious security challenges remain (Adds quotes, reaction, refiles to fix typo in lead)
Washington: President Barack Obama announced a plan on Wednesday to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in a first step toward ending the long, costly war and returning America’s focus toward its own troubled economy.
Obama said he would pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, followed by about 23,000 more by the end of next summer and a steady withdrawal of remaining troops after that.
In a 15-minute televised address, Obama vowed that the United States — struggling to restore its global image, repair its faltering economy and bring down the high jobless rate at home — would end a decade of military adventures prompted by the 11 Sept. attacks in 2001 and exercise new restraint with American military power.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said, heralding the gradual drawdown of US forces in Iraq and the limited US involvement in the ongoing international campaign in Libya.
“America, it is time to focus on nation building at home.”
Yet news that Obama will pull the entire ‘surge´ force he sent to Afghanistan in 2010 is certain to fuel friction between Obama and his military advisors who have warned about the perils of a hasty drawdown.
Nearly 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled, US and Nato forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the resurgent Islamist group. The Afghan government remains weak and notoriously corrupt, and billions of dollars in foreign aid efforts have yielded meager results.
Obama’s decision on trimming the US force was a more aggressive approach than many expected. It went beyond the options offered by General David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, whom Obama has picked to lead the CIA.
The president’s decision reflected the competing pressures he faces as he seeks to curb spending and halt US casualties without allowing the threat of extremist attacks to fester.
Outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates said he supported Obama’s decision. But the plan is unlikely to sit well with the Pentagon’s top brass who worry insurgents could regain lost territory as fighting intensifies along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.
“We’ve undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer’s fighting season,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even after the withdrawal of the 33,00 US troops, about 70,000 will remain in Afghanistan, about twice the number there when Obama took office.
Reaction from the US Congress was mixed, as lawmakers impatient with a war that now costs more than $110 billion a year complained Obama should have embraced a larger drawdown.
Unease in Washington over the war has escalated with worries about massive budget deficits, spiraling national debt and unemployment running at more than 9%. These are Americans’ chief concerns and the issues likely to drive voters in next year’s presidential election.
Obama clearly has been mindful of the US public’s lack of support for the war as he eyes his re-election campaign.
Shift since Bin Laden’s death
The debate over future US involvement in Afghanistan has shifted palpably since US special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month. Obama said materials recovered from bin Laden’s compound showed al Qaeda was ‘under enormous strain.´
In the wake of bin Laden’s death, the Obama administration has argued even more forcefully that it must adopt a narrow, defensive approach to dirt-poor Afghanistan, focusing on lawless havens insurgents can use to launch attacks.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” Obama said. “That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”
He said the United States would continue to support efforts to foster a political settlement with the Taliban. While officials acknowledge a peace deal may be far in the future, even if one could be had, Obama said there was “reason to believe” that progress could be made.
But conditions in Afghanistan remains volatile as Nato begins to hand over to local forces in keeping with a plan to put Afghan soldiers in charge nationwide by the end of 2014.
The White House decision may embolden European nations facing a squeeze on their own defense budgets to withdraw their own troops more quickly.
New era of American engagement?
Beyond Afghanistan, Obama repeatedly signaled that he was now reversing a post-11 Sept. burst of expensive military engagements that often focused on repairing broken nations through troop-heavy counter-insurgency tactics.
Obama touted progress the United States had made toward bringing American soldiers home not just from Afghanistan, but from Iraq. There, US troops are due to withdraw fully by year’s end unless a new deal can be struck with Baghdad.
The Iraq war, together with Afghanistan, has killed approximately 6,000 US soldiers in addition to tens of thousands of foreign troops and civilians.
The more limited US involvement in Libya, where NATO and its allies have been conducting air strikes since March in hopes leader Muammar Gaddafi will halt attacks on civilians, may be the model for future US military engagement overseas.
“What I worry about is the message that is going to be taken away by our allies and potential allies about America’s orientation in the world,” said retired Lieutenant General David Barno, a former senior commander in Afghanistan.
“That sounded an awful lot like an ‘America come home´ speech,” he said.
Even as Obama charts a course for leaving Afghanistan, a major threat remains in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Obama warned Pakistan that the United States would not hesitate to launch strikes on militants targeting Americans.
Still, analysts have cautioned that if the United States walks away from Afghanistan, it does so at its own peril because of the risk the country could topple back into the grip of extremism or renewed civil war. Both of these scenarios could again open the door to al Qaeda.
“What will be important is what happens in two or three years from now,” said Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform in London.
“If Obama gets re-elected, and it all goes wrong, and Kabul has turned into another Mogadishu — then he would clearly have some explaining to do.”