Analysis: No turning back for Obama on Afghan war
The US troops start coming home in July, with more than 30,000 pulling out by September 2012.
Washington: We're getting out. No more presidential talk of decisions based on conditions on the ground. No benchmarks to measure. No maybes at all.
Determined to pull the United States out of the war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama deliberately left out any wiggle room in declaring that a methodical withdrawal has begun. His speech to the nation on Wednesday, a turning point in a fight most Americans don't want, abandoned the caveats that commanders in chief often reserve for a war still being fought.
Why? Because Obama wants Kabul and the American electorate to know there will be no turning back. This combat mission will be over by the end of 2014.
After that, the United States will have forces in Afghanistan for counterterrorism missions and advisory support. Just how many is still to be negotiated with the Afghan government and perhaps the next US president, whether that's Obama or not. The White House is looking at a number in the range of 5,000 to 20,000, far fewer than the 100,000 US troops there now.
Several factors led Obama to settle on a fast pace for withdrawal and an unequivocal tone.
Mainly, he sees a military mission accomplished, without ever using those words. Yet the political context also has changed significantly. A sovereign Afghanistan has tired of the US presence, the financial toll of the war has become entangled with the US debt debate, and people in the US long for an exit.
As US troops start coming home in July, with more than 30,000 pulling out by September 2012, Obama's emphasis has narrowed. Just as he looked homeward when he ended the combat mission in Iraq, Obama is talking less about boosting the Afghan people and more about helping struggling Americans.
"We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place," the president said in his speech. "We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government."
That, not surprisingly, is what an economy-focused voting public wants to hear.
When President George W Bush announced the US-led invasion in October 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks, he warned Americans that their patience would be tested "in the months ahead."
Turns out the combat mission is on pace to stretch 13 years and expanded under Obama, until now.
Obama will go before the voters in November 2012 with more than double the amount of troops in Afghanistan than were there when he took office. Yet he will say that he is the president who accelerated the end of two wars.
Americans chiefly see Afghanistan as the home base of the terrorists who attacked America, and both Bush and Obama were driven to prevent that opportunity again. To regain control of the war, Obama in late 2009 ordered in more than 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, but always with an eye toward their withdrawal starting this July.
Overruling his military commanders, Obama decided to bring back all the extra troops by about the middle of next year. He attributed his move to the diminished state of the Taliban, better training of Afghan forces, though their capability remains in doubt, and blows against al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan.
For Americans consumed with matters at home, all that talk of progress was measured in one moment, when US Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
"We pummeled al-Qaida," Obama told donors in New York City on Thursday, using freer language than he had in his White House address a night earlier. "We took out bin Laden."
Obama's military advisers acknowledged they had not wanted to pull troops out nearly so fast. "The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some political voices still push for a slower withdrawal and warn that Afghanistan could slip back into a haven for terrorism, but they make up a lonely minority.
This decision is done.
Obama did leave the military leeway on how and from where the troops would be pulled out. But he intentionally left out any mention of reviewing the withdrawal based on conditions on the ground.
Instead he set clear markers, 10,000 of the extra troops out in 2011, the remaining 23,000 or so out by summer of 2012.
It was meant to signal to everyone that the transition to Afghan control is serious.
So is the deadline of turning over control of all Afghan security to Afghanistan by the end of 2014, as agreed to by NATO countries last year. Obama said that leaders of NATO nations would review how to proceed with the withdrawal next May during a summit in Chicago.
"We don't foresee a situation that would affect the fundamental direction here, which is we are moving to a reduced footprint," said Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
The public mood has been headed in the same direction.
As recently as January 2009, about the time that Obama took office, only 26 percent of Americans said they wanted the number of US forces in Afghanistan to be decreased, according to a CBS News poll. That number has soared to 64 percent.
Pessimism about the US economic recovery has taken hold, and Obama knows it.
When Obama unveiled his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in March 2009, he warned about the temptation of cutting aid for Afghanistan's civil rebuilding effort during economically hard times in the United States. "Make no mistake," he said. "Our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don't invest in their future."
By December 2009 when he announced the surge, Obama's language about all that was much leaner. He admonished Afghan President Hamid Karzai about corruption in his ranks and said of US financial support, "The days of providing a blank check are over."
In his announcement last week, Obama spoke of building America's public works, not Afghanistan's.
"His trajectory is, quite frankly, a sobering embrace of reality," said Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies who closely follows Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"He's reconciling his constraints, the limited stomach for this in the United States, the fact that we are broke, and the fact that our partners in Pakistan are not really partners. You have to make trade-offs, and he's trying to make the best trade-offs he can."