WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama will argue Wednesday his Afghan war surge strategy has forged substantial progress and a “position of strength” which allows thousands of US troops to come home, officials said.
In a primetime speech to a war-weary US public, Obama will say his decision to pour fresh US resources into Afghanistan has hammered Al-Qaeda, broken Taliban momentum and turned around a conflict that had gone sour on America.
A senior US official told AFP Obama would announce some US troop reductions this year, and lay out a timetable for the full return home of the 30,000 extra troops he committed to the war in his surge strategy in December 2009.
Separately, a senior US defense official said Tuesday that Obama would “likely” announce 5,000 US troops would pull out soon, with another 5,000 to go before the end of the year, while all surge forces would leave by late 2012.
There are currently 99,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
The president’s broadcast at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) will take place as political attitudes shift on the war following the killing of Osama bin Laden, other heavy US blows against Al-Qaeda and as US public support ebbs for the conflict.
But Obama’s withdrawal timetable may not be sufficiently swift for critics who are demanding faster troop withdrawals as the political ground shifts under a war launched 10 years ago after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Some of Obama’s fellow Democrats and some usually more hawkish Republicans are demanding a faster US exit from Afghanistan, and questioning the huge $10 billion a month cost of the conflict at a time of deep fiscal pain.
Jon Huntsman, the just departed US ambassador to China who wants to take on his former boss as a Republican presidential candidate, chided Obama over a drawdown he said was too tentative.
“I think that we can probably be more aggressive,” Huntsman said. “We’ve been at this for nine years and 50 days.”
But reflecting splits among Republicans, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said Obama should heed the advice of his military commanders.
“We’ve an awful lot invested here. And I’m concerned about any precipitous withdrawal of our troops that would jeopardize the success we’ve made,” he said.
On the other flank, influential Democratic Senator Carl Levin this week renewed his argument that improved security conditions would permit Obama to bring home 15,000 combat troops by the end of the year.
The senior US official said Obama would argue that the surge had met key objectives he laid down at the start of the escalation: namely reversing Taliban momentum, disrupting and dismantling Al-Qaeda and building Afghan forces towards an eventual assumption of security duties.
The president will talk about “a drawdown based on strength and progress towards those goals,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said that the US operation against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan tribal regions had “exceeded our expectations,” saying 20 of the group’s top 30 leaders, including bin Laden had been killed in the last year.
Obama will also place the Afghan mission in the context of his wider foreign policy and war strategy, arguing that he has drawn down 100,000 troops from Iraq, and will oversee a promised full withdrawal by the end of this year.
The figure of 10,000 troop withdrawals this year, if confirmed, appears higher than the “modest” initial withdrawals the Pentagon had originally advocated.
War commander General David Petraeus is believed to have argued for a smaller initial troop withdrawal this year and a prolonged surge to allow for an expanded counter insurgency against Taliban forces in eastern Afghanistan.
But Obama is walking a delicate balance between the Pentagon’s aspirations, his own strategic concepts of the US mission, and a political environment driven by waning support for ambitious and costly wars overseas.
Obama promised when he unveiled the surge he would begin to bring soldiers home in July 2011 — a vow critics panned as offering succour to US enemies.
But since the Afghan mission was partly defined as an effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda, some war critics have questioned why America needs to keep such large troop numbers in Afghanistan.
In a new Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of respondents, the highest ever, said US troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39 percent said they should stay in Afghanistan until the situation had stabilized.