WASHINGTON — Pulling home the Americans he sent to war, President Barack Obama plans to announce Wednesday night the withdrawal of more than 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by the November 2012 election, hastening the end of the long conflict that has been more costly than ever envisioned when launched in response to the 2001 attacks on America.
In an address from the White House, Obama is expected to say that he was withdrawing 10,000 troops by the end of this year, according to administration and Pentagon officials. He aims to bring an additional 20,000 home by the end of next year, accounting for basically all the extra forces he ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009 to turn around a flailing war effort.
Still, that would leave some 70,000 U.S. troops in unstable Afghanistan in a war bound to see more American lives lost. The United States and its NATO allies hope to end the combat mission and fully turn over control to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, a transition period that may finally bring the war to an end.
Obama is under mounting political pressure to wind down the war, especially since Osama bin Laden, the man considered to be the face of it, is dead. U.S. forces found and killed the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan in May, a significant blow to an organization that nevertheless still threatens the United States.
At least 1,500 members of the U.S. military have died and 12,000 have been wounded since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise given the heavy troop commitment, jumping to $120 billion a year, twice the total of two years ago.
The decision to start withdrawing forces in July amounts to a pledge kept by Obama. Yet the scope and pace of the drawdown have been hotly debated. The military lobbied for a more modest troop reduction and Obama promised a significant one as support for the war by the country and Congress faded.
The initial withdrawal is expected to happen in two phases, with 5,000 troops coming home this summer and an additional 5,000 by the end of the year, a senior U.S. defense official said.
For Obama, the goal is to explain a stay-the-course moment of progress to the American people — the U.S. is not yet leaving Afghanistan — without the trappings of a major war address. He was speaking from the all-purpose East Room, not the Oval Office, and he was expected to speak for about 10 to 15 minutes, half the time he spent when he announced the troop surge almost 19 months ago.
Obama is arguing that the reinforcements he sent have accomplished their mission: eroding the capacity of Taliban insurgents and providing time and training for Afghanistan's forces to get ready to lead their own country. The United States remains in Afghanistan primarily to keep it from becoming a haven for al-Qaida, the terrorist network that based training operations there before launching the worst attacks on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001. Obama's ultimate goal is to defeat al-Qaida.
Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and are far more concerned about the teetering economic recovery at home. A new AP-GfK poll out Wednesday found that Obama's approval rating on handling Afghanistan dipped to 52 percent, falling 13 points from its high of 65 percent in May just after the death of bin Laden.
In Afghanistan on Wednesday, the nation's Defense Ministry said the NATO-trained military was ready to take responsibility for fighting Taliban insurgents and securing key parts of the country.
Many Afghans are eager to see the Americans leave, yet there are big risks for the government there.
"There will be some battles, there will be suicide attacks and bomb attacks," acknowledged Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. "But we in the Afghan forces are prepared to replace the foreign forces, and I'm confident the army has enough capacity and ability."
The president reached his withdrawal decision a week after receiving a range of options from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Obama informed his senior national security advisers, including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, of his plans during a White House meeting Tuesday.
"The president is commander in chief," spokesman Jay Carney said. "He is in charge of this process, and he makes the decision."
The administration has begun briefing NATO allies on its plans. British Prime Minister David Cameron's office confirmed that officials there have been informed but declined to offer comment, or to make any immediate statement on the plans for about 9,500 British forces in Afghanistan.
A reduction this year totaling 10,000 U.S. troops would be the rough equivalent of two brigades, which are the main building blocks of an Army division. It's not clear whether Obama's decision would require the Pentagon to pull out two full brigades or, instead, withdraw a collection of smaller combat and support units with an equivalent number of troops.
If Obama leaves the bulk of the 30,000 surge contingent in Afghanistan through 2012, he will be giving the military another fighting season — in addition to the one now under way — to damage Taliban forces before a larger withdrawal gets started. It also will buy more time for the Afghan army and police to grow in numbers and capability.
Some U.S. military commanders have favored a more gradual reduction in troops than Obama is expected to announce Wednesday night, arguing that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the fragile security gains.
But other advisers have backed a more significant withdrawal that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following months. That camp cites the slow yet steady improvements in security, combined with the killing of bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the al-Qaida network in the country.
On Capitol Hill, even the more moderate or conservative members of Obama's party, such as Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are pressing for significant cuts and a shift in mission. Obama aides have sidestepped questions about what role the cost of the war played in Obama's decision, saying only that the president was focused on meeting the goal of transferring security by 2014.
Following the announcement on the drawdown, Obama will visit troops Thursday at Fort Drum, the upstate New York Army post that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan.
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