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Sunday, January 13, 2013
Obama Speeds Up US Troop Withdrawals from Afghanistan
By Carol E. Lee and Adam Entous, The Wall Street Journal – January 12, 2013
PRESIDENT Barack Obama said he would speed up US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, signalling his intention to accelerate the end of America’s longest war.
After White House meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday, Mr Obama said the US is moving up the schedules for pulling American forces out of Afghan villages and for ending most unilateral combat operations.
That is possible, he said, thanks to what he described as recent gains by US troops and progress in training Afghan security forces to take the combat lead.
“The reason we went to war in the first place is now within reach: ensuring that al Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against our country,” Mr Obama said.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission—training, advising, assisting Afghan forces,” he added. “This sets the stage for the further reduction of coalition forces.”
The shift, announced by the president at a White House news conference with Mr Karzai, could carry benefits for both leaders as they negotiate winding down the unpopular war, now in its 12th year.
Mr Obama provided few new details except to say that American force reductions should continue at a steady pace, signalling at least some of the 66,000 American troops now in Afghanistan could leave starting this spring and summer, rather than in the fall, the time frame preferred by commanders.
Top Pentagon officials had said that they envisioned the US shifting from a combat to a support mission, focused on training and assisting the Afghans, in mid-2013. The steps announced Friday by the US and Afghan leaders moved up that time frame by several months, to spring.
A faster withdrawal timeline allows Mr Karzai to argue back home that he has been able to more quickly recoup Afghanistan’s sovereignty, with Afghan forces taking the lead on security and US troops exiting sooner.
In the US, Mr Obama gets to make the case to Americans that he isn’t only winding down the war, but that he is doing so even faster than he had promised.
To military experts, speeding the withdrawal process may not be the best war strategy. Afghan and coalition officials said Afghan troops still depend on international forces for artillery, air support, intelligence collection and casualty evacuation.
“If this acceleration means the Afghans don’t have access to those combat multipliers…that puts their ability to assume lead responsibility at risk,” said General James Dubik, a senior fellow for the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank occasionally critical of the administration’s strategy.
Messrs Obama and Karzai spent hours together Friday in back-to-back meetings and over lunch. They grappled with issues that have sometimes divided them, but appeared to defer the thorniest decisions.
By moving key transition points up to the spring, the White House will have more leeway to accelerate the drawdown of the US troops now in Afghanistan. Military officials now expect troop reductions to begin in the spring and accelerate in the summer and fall.
Mr Obama said he would decide how quickly the US will withdraw troops after he receives recommendations from Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in the war.
General Allen initially recommended against any drawdown before the fall, when the fighting season ends. But he has privately signalled in recent weeks to Pentagon chiefs that limited troop withdrawals may be practical as early as this spring.
Some defence officials expect the White House to set a goal of cutting the force down to roughly 30,000 by the end of 2013, .
Mr Obama said Friday he would make an announcement on the pace of troop drawdown in coming months. In a joint statement after their meeting, the leaders reaffirmed plans for US and other foreign troops in Afghanistan to shift from a combat to a support mission in mid-2013, near the level when Mr Obama came to office in 2009.
But Mr Obama made clear he intends to speed the time frame.
“Because of the progress that’s been made by our troops, because of the progress that’s been made in terms of Afghan security forces, their capacity to take the lead, we are able to meet those goals and accelerate them somewhat,” he said.
Mr Karzai welcomed the spring transition time frame that would put his forces in the lead. He said the shift would mean that US forces would no longer operate in Afghan villages, a long-standing demand of the Afghan president. A senior administration official said the shift was done at Mr Karzai’s request.
“In spring this year, the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security and protection to the Afghan people,” Mr Karzai said.
While most unilateral US combat operations will end at that time, Mr Obama said American troops would still be in the fight, to some extent.
The two leaders left unresolved another contentious issue: US troop levels after 2014, when the current NATO combat mission ends.
The Pentagon has presented White House staff with three options that would leave roughly 3000, 6000 or 9000 US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Officials said it could take weeks for Mr Obama to make an announcement.
Senior White House officials said this week that Mr Obama could reject all three options and leave no US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. On Friday, Mr Obama neither embraced nor ruled out what analysts have termed the “zero-option”.
Instead, Mr Obama said US forces left in Afghanistan after 2014 would have two goals: to train and assist Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions aimed at al Qaeda and its affiliates.
“That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Karzai favors a larger US force, depending on them for training his own units, but said it was up to the US to decide on the number of troops it leaves behind after 2014.
Negotiations with Afghanistan over a post-2014 force have centered on US demands for immunity for any US troops who remain in the country. Mr Karzai has signaled his willingness to provide that immunity in exchange for a series of US assurances, including that hundreds of Afghan detainees now held by US troops would be turned over to the Afghan government.
With Mr Obama at his side, the Afghan leader said on Friday that the two had agreed during their meeting to completely return “detention centers and detainees to Afghan sovereignty”. Mr Karzai said the agreement would be implemented soon after his return to Afghanistan.
Mr Karzai also came to Washington with a wish list of big-ticket items that he wants the US to provide to bolster his security forces.
The Obama administration’s response, however, has been mixed.
The latest package of equipment, which the Pentagon prepared in advance of Mr Karzai’s visit, calls for the US to provide the Afghans with up to 30 more Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters, unarmed drones and surveillance systems, according to officials briefed on its contents. The Pentagon deferred on a decision to provide the Afghans with five used C-130 military transport planes and light attack aircraft.
Friday marked the two leaders’ first in-person meeting since a NATO summit in Chicago in May, although they spoke via video conference in September.
Mr Karzai arrived in Washington earlier this week and while in town also met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Both leaders reflected as they discussed the winding down of the war. Mr Karzai, who isn’t eligible to run in Afghanistan’s April 2014 presidential election, said he is looking forward to being “very happily, a retired president.”
Mr Obama conceded that the longest war in US history had fallen short of some hopes.
“Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not,” he said. “This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal.”