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Obama Solicits Support for Afghanistan Drawdown Amid Varied Reactions

June 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama announced Wednesday that 10,000 U.S. troops are slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 will pull out by the end of 2012. Kwame Holman reports on the range of responses to the president's withdrawal timetable from Washington to Kabul.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Reactions poured in today to President Obama’s announcement that American forces will begin pulling out of Afghanistan. They spanned the spectrum of opinions, foreign and domestic, from Kabul to Congress, after last night’s presidential address.

Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: From American living rooms, to the streets of Kandahar, to U.S. personnel in the field, the president’s speech was followed by millions. The effects will be felt widely as well, with 10,000 Americans slated to leave Afghanistan by year’s end, and 23,000 more by the end of 2012.

But the president’s plan takes out more troops sooner than military advisers had recommended. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, who retires later this year, said as much today to the House Armed Services Committee.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs chairman: What I can tell you is, the president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mullen also said he supports the decision. So did NATO ally France. In Paris, the Defense Ministry announced the country will begin pulling out its 4,000 troops on a similar timetable.

And the British foreign minister said 9,500 British troops will begin leaving Afghanistan soon, with the entire force expected to be out by 2015.

All of that seemed to suit Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He said in Kabul his nation’s youth will stand up and defend their country.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan (through translator): The transition of the security and withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan means the Afghan forces must be strengthened. And we are hearing from all over Afghanistan that people now have more faith and confidence in their forces.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among ordinary Afghans, the impending U.S. pullout evoked a range of reaction.

MAN (through translator): At this time, when they leave, Afghans will be caught up in civil war again and will not be able to rule the country without the Americans.

ASSADULLAH KHAN, Afghanistan: The foreigners leave our country because our security can handle the nation. It is good for our nation, because we are Afghan. We should handle the security in our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Taliban also reacted to President Obama’s speech, dismissing it as symbolic. A spokesman said, the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately. But he warned, until that happens, the Taliban will intensify its efforts.

Back in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged efforts to bring the Taliban into the fold. She testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The United States has a broad range of contacts at many levels across Afghanistan and the region that we are leveraging to support this effort, including very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban. This is not a pleasant business, but a necessary one.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clinton said she thought Mr. Obama had made the right decisions about withdrawal.

But among lawmakers, the plan drew fire from those who said it wasn’t enough and from those who said it was too much.

REP. JIM MCGOVERN, D-Mass.: I believe this is insufficient, and I fear that it means more of the same for the next 18 months. The same strategy means the same costs and, I’m sad to say, even more casualties, more Americans soldiers losing their lives in support of an Afghan government that is terribly corrupt and incompetent. We have been doing this for 10 years. It’s the longest war in our history, Mr. Speaker. Enough.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER, R-Ill.: America has a vested interest in seeing an Afghanistan that can stand up against terrorism, that can begin to defend itself against terrorists who seek to overthrow their country, who seeks to overthrow Pakistan, and can do so with limited U.S. help. That is how we begin to see victory. Or we can just give up.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Afghanistan plan also had its defenders, from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio speaker of the House: Morning everyone. I have said, since the president took office, that, if the president listened to commanders and his diplomats in the region, that I would support his plan. I am generally supportive of the plan because there’s enough flexibility in the withdrawal to take into considerations conditions on the ground. And that’s critically important, I think, for the long-term success here.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass. Foreign Relations Committee chairman: If you really stop and think about it, we have met our major goals in Afghanistan, as articulated by president. We significantly disrupted al-Qaida and dramatically reduced its presence in the country. And the job, though not finished, we have come to the point where this mission can transition.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commander in chief hoped to make that very point as he visited troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division today at Fort Drum, N.Y.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, last night, I gave a speech in which I said that we have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops. We’re not doing it precipitously. We’re going to do it in a — in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained.

KWAME HOLMAN: For now, the president can point to polls that show the public wants to wind down the war, and, as he said last night, focus instead on nation-building here at home.