President Barack Obama, in a widely anticipated speech tonight, announced a brisk drawdown of 33,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, and called more broadly for the U.S. to assume a more pragmatic approach to international interventions in order to focus on economic recovery and nation-building at home.
"We are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home," Obama said in the brief twelve minute speech from the White House East Room. "Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource — our people."
"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," he said.
The United States had achieved significant progress in the counterterrorism goals Obama outlined when he ordered the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan in a speech at West Point in December 2009, he said. Among those goals: reversing Taliban gains in Afghanistan, degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities and eliminating several of its commanders in Pakistan, and building up the Afghan security forces to eventually be able to secure their own country.
But responding to growing American public impatience with the almost ten year old war and the continued economic crisis in the United States, Obama said the United States has to be strategic about pursuing national security engagements abroad.
"Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world," Obama said. With some now calling for America to "to retreat from our responsibility," he said, others "would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad."
"We must chart a more centered course," Obama said. "When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas."
The number of U.S. forces to be withdrawn over the next 15 months comprise all of those Obama ordered "surged" to Afghanistan in a December 2009 speech at West Point, which brought the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000.
The timetable Obama announced will leave some 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of next summer, who will be withdrawn by 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan national security forces can take over responsibility for securing their country by that time.
Obama's decision to withdraw all of the surged forces by next summer was on the more far-reaching end of the range of options his national security advisers considered, senior administration officials described in a call with journalists this afternoon. Pentagon officials, including the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus, had advocated for a less rapid drawdown, national security hands indicated. Petraeus, who Obama has nominated to head the CIA, is due to leave Afghanistan later this summer.
The steeper drawdown decision comes as a new poll shows for first time that a majority of Americans want U.S. forces to be brought home from Afghanistan, and as lawmakers in both parties are expressing growing impatience with the expense of the war.
"For the first time, a majority (56%) [of Americans] says that U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39% favor keeping troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized," the new poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found. The number of Americans favoring a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has risen 8 points since last month, and 16 points from last year, when only 40% of the public favored removing the troops as soon as possible.
"There's a wariness from the public with the war gone on so long," Pew's Carroll Doherty said.
After the May 2nd U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, many Americans believe the U.S. has largely accomplished its mission there, Doherty said. Increasingly, he added, Americans are focused on the cost of the war. "You see more and more people saying, bring the troops home from Afghanistan," as a way to reduce the national debt, Doherty said.
Administration officials said they fully understood American public frustration with the cost and sacrifice of the ten year old war and were moving to begin what they called a responsible drawdown from Afghanistan.
They also pointed out that Obama had removed over 100,000 U.S. forces from Iraq since he came into office in January 2009. (When he came into office, the U.S. had 180,000 troops total in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials noted. Today, there are 150,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of the year, there will be fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops in the two countries, they estimated.)
The remaining mission is to consolidate the gains made to try to prevent Afghanistan and Pakistan from becoming safe havens from which al Qaeda can perpetrate attacks against the United States in the future.
"The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies," Obama said. "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Obama's speech, but said the president should have considered a more rapid drawdown of U.S. forces.
"The president's decision represents a positive development, although in my view the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops this year than the president announced tonight," Sen. Levin said in a statement. He said the conditions justifying a more expansive drawdown include "the progress U.S. and Afghan troops and our allies have made to improve security in Afghanistan; the faster than expected growth of the Afghan security forces; the death of Osama bin Laden and the decreasing number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan."
But some national security experts said Obama risked jeopardizing advances against the Taliban achieved with the troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy Petraeus had championed.
"The President's plan strikes me as solid in concept but a bit rushed," said the Brookings Institutions' Michael O'Hanlon. "Ideally next year's drawdown would have until the end of the year or until early 2013 so the U.S. troops could successfully conclude the fighting season."
Other Democratic national security hands argued the president is supposed to look at a broader set of U.S. national security interests than those viewed solely by commanders from the battlefield.
"A president is supposed to get the best advice from his generals and then make up his own mind. That is what we have presidents for," said Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton administration official who now serves as executive director of the progressive National Security Network. "But it's very difficult: the president has to listen to the advice of the generals, [but also] to the level of fatigue of the American people [with the war], and a whole lot of other things."