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Obama Picks Pace of Drawdown From Afghanistan, America’s Longest War

June 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been nearly 10 years since the U.S. went into Afghanistan after 9/11. Now President Obama is ready to talk about the way out. He will do so tonight from the East Room of the White House at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.

The president’s primetime speech will focus on how to begin to unwind American involvement in the longest war the nation has ever fought. There are about 100,000 U.S. troops now on the ground in Afghanistan, including more than 30,000 added during last year’s surge. It’s widely expected Mr. Obama will announce tonight that 5,000 will head home this summer, and an additional 5,000 will leave by the end of the year. Another 20,000 would depart by the end of 2012, effectively ending the surge. Tens of thousands more would remain.

But members of Congress have increasingly called on the president to accelerate the pullout.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland:

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI, D-Md.: I want him to meet the deadlines he set and to explore all avenues and options to accelerate the withdrawal. I think it’s time to bring our troops home. I think it’s time to bring our money back home. And I think it’s time to bring our jobs back home.

GWEN IFILL: That sentiment is fueled by rising public opposition to the war’s costs, with more than 1,500 Americans killed, more than 12,000 wounded, and a tab of a billion dollars a month.

But House Speaker John Boehner said today that too quick a pullout could be dangerous.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio Speaker of the House: We’re getting there, but we have got an awful lot invested here. And I’m concerned about any precipitous withdrawal of our troops that would jeopardize the success that we have made.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, commanders on the ground maintain that gains achieved in the past 18 months remain fragile and reversible. A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry appeared today to endorse the gradual pullout.

GEN. MOHAMMAD ZAHIR AZIMI, Afghan Defense Ministry (through translator): The Afghan national army is capable of filling the gaps which will be created as a result of the withdrawal of these troops in some of the places with the manpower it has.

GWEN IFILL: That view, coupled with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, may give the president the domestic support he needs to exit Afghanistan sooner, rather than later.

Margaret Warner joins me now from the White House for a preview of tonight’s address.

Margaret, in a policy sense, in a political sense, in a military sense, what is the context behind tonight’s speech?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the context, as you pointed out, Gwen, is a political context, as well as a military one on the ground.

But just to put this troop withdrawal in context, President Obama has essentially more than tripled U.S. forces in Afghanistan from the 32,000 there when President Bush left to 100,000. So, this year’s 10,000 withdrawal will barely nick that.

By the end of next year, he will — you will be back to the pre-surge level. That will still be twice as much as President — twice as many troops as President Bush had.

What may surprise some people tonight is the pace of that withdrawal next year, which is that the president will announce that, in fact, those 20,000 coming out next year are going to be out by the end of the summer or by September at the latest. That means they won’t be there, all of them, through the full — quote — “fighting season,” as military commanders had hoped.

GWEN IFILL: Is this intended for an international audience, our allies who have been on the ground there with us in Afghanistan itself, or is it intended for a domestic audience here at home?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, both, Gwen, which is the needle he has to thread. And he had a hard time, as you will recall, in his West Point speech in 2009.

He is going to try to say the U.S. remains committed to Afghanistan and Pakistan and the fight against al-Qaida, and at the same time that this withdrawal is for real. So, he’s going to say that. He’s going to couch that by saying that the effort has had great success, actually, in both reversing the momentum — that is, the initiative is now with the U.S. and Afghan forces, not the Taliban, as it was in early ’09 — that the Afghan security forces themselves are getting trained up, and they will be able to take on more and more of the responsibility.

And, most of all, he’s going to emphasize the number-one mission, which was to take out al-Qaida and the threat to al-Qaida to Americans, has had huge success, especially through the use of drones and special force, taking out senior leaders of al-Qaida and its affiliates, not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan — and, of course, Osama bin Laden being example number one.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there a military buy-in on this plan?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, nobody’s saying anything publicly.

But military commanders made pretty clear over the last few weeks — we have seen it played out in the papers — that they wanted — that these gains are, as you said in your setup, still reversible, still fragile, that they wanted to have as much of the Serb force as — as — of the surge force — excuse me — on the ground through the end of next year.

And so — and that that was the heart of really cementing this counterinsurgency strategy. So, I’m told that this is within the range of recommendations, certainly, that Gen. Petraeus had suggested, but it’s not the optimum recommendation, in his view.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you said this would bring us back at the end of 2012 to pre-surge level — levels. What happens to the rest of the troops still on the ground? Are there any plans that are going to be announced to — to bring that number down as well?

MARGARET WARNER: I believe he’s going say that over the course of — obviously of the remaining two years, they will come out, but there will be no specifics.

As you know, the U.S. and its NATO allies in the Karzai government at Lisbon last November agreed on a glide path, that, by the end of 2014, in the combat operations, the leadership and the force fighting would taken over by the Afghan security forces.

So he’s expected to say that still is on train, but not — not put any specifics on that.

GWEN IFILL: And given the stress that’s currently on the economy — I said in the setup it was a billion dollars a month in Afghanistan — it’s actually $10 billion a month, the cost in Afghanistan — is this decision being made or is the White House saying this decision is being made because the mission is complete or because it’s just costing too much now?

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. officials are frank to admit — and Western diplomats also — that cost is a huge factor here. This war was costing just 40 — not just, but $43 billion a year when President Bush left office. It’s now triple that, along with the forces, and that the cost, at a time of real deficit distress and reduction, is difficult to sustain.

And so White House advisers who were pushing back against the military commanders said, you know, we can’t just have the appearance of a drawdown. We really want some real drawdowns.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Margaret Warner at the White House for us tonight, thanks so much.