Bloomberg News

Obama Weighs Military Needs in Afghanistan With Waning Support

June 21, 2011

June 22 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama, in an address to the nation tonight, will seek to balance military goals against fiscal realities and waning public support when he announces how quickly he’ll bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.

Obama is coming under pressure from the public, lawmakers and some of the Republicans vying to run against him in 2012 to accelerate U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan. The calls for drawing the Afghan campaign to a close have increased since the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and as attention is focused on the nation’s debt.

White House officials refused to provide details of the president’s plan, including whether he’ll withdraw all 30,000 troops that constitute last year’s military surge that he ordered by the end of 2012. The Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed Pentagon officials, said Obama is expected to withdraw 10,000 personnel by the end of this year. Other reports said Obama plans to bring about 30,000 troops home by the end of next year. White House press secretary Jay Carney called those figures “speculation.”

“The president will keep the commitment that he made in December of 2009 to begin the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan next month,” Carney said at a briefing yesterday.

Taliban Government

About 97,000 U.S. forces are serving in Afghanistan, along with about 50,000 from other nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The U.S. began military operations in Afghanistan in October 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America orchestrated by al-Qaeda leaders being harbored by the Taliban-run government then in charge of the country. That government was quickly overthrown.

Obama ran for president in 2008 promising to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in March 2003. Obama last year withdrew all combat forces from Iraq, leaving 50,000 troops to provide training and support until the end of this year. He has said the U.S. will fully hand over security responsibility in Afghanistan to local authorities by 2014.

The two wars together have cost the lives of 6,080 U.S. personnel and more than $1 trillion, according to Defense Department figures. The cost figure doesn’t include as much as $100 billion the Pentagon lists as not war-related, such intelligence spending, or the long-term costs for Veterans Administration care and disability costs for the 44,122 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

‘Significant,’ ‘Major’ Changes

Michael O’Hanlon, a military strategy and defense analyst at the Brookings Institution policy group in Washington, said a withdrawal of 5,000 troops this year from Afghanistan and a total of 30,000 by the end of 2012 or early 2013 would be consistent with military planning, while withdrawing 10,000 this year would require some “significant” changes. A withdrawal of 15,000 this year, O’Hanlon said, would require “major” changes to plans.

Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the timing of withdrawals is important because the military wants to preserve “the maximum combat power it can bring to bear throughout the fighting season” this year and in 2012. The fighting season in Afghanistan typically runs from late spring through autumn.

Withdrawing 10,000 troops during this year’s fighting season would limit U.S. capabilities more than withdrawing 5,000 now and another 5,000 after the fighting season ends, said Fontaine, who is a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Support Troops

Fontaine also said he expects most of the first withdrawals to be personnel that provide support, rather than combat troops. War costs, which have contributed to a trillion-dollar federal budget deficit that both the Congress and Obama have promised to cut, also have figured into the debate.

From a cost savings perspective, if most of the withdrawals come in late 2012, Fontaine said, it will mean “you’re still talking about a war that’s north of $100 billion a year stretching through 2012.”

Obama’s speech comes after weeks of deliberations among his military, diplomatic, economic and political advisers. Those included General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan and Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose is set to leave his post on June 30, and Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who was confirmed yesterday as Obama choice to replace Gates.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led Obama’s first interagency review of Afghanistan and Pakistan and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he expected Petraeus and Panetta would support withdrawing 5,000 troops this summer and 5,000 later this year.

Gates’ View

Gates said during his visit to Afghanistan this month that the drawdown shouldn’t jeopardize the past year’s gains to stem Taliban advances. Gates pushed for any drawdown of the surge to cover the next 18 to 24 months.

Gates said the Taliban might be more willing to negotiate a reconciliation with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai by the end of this year if the U.S. can maintain military pressure.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement yesterday that “conditions on the ground” should allow Obama to withdraw at least 15,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year.

Poll Results

A survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center found for the first time a majority of Americans, 56 percent, want to bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible rather than wait until the Afghan situation has stabilized.

That reflects an eight-point increase since May and a 16- point increase from a year ago. The survey of 1,502 adults was conducted June 15-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted June 17-20 found almost one-third of Americans want an immediate withdrawal; 53 percent support withdrawal over the next couple of years.

Obama’s speech follows revelations that the U.S. has engaged in preliminary talks with the Taliban to promote peace talks, and new concerns about the U.S. relationship with Karzai.

Gates described U.S. contact with Taliban guerillas as “very preliminary.” The U.S. stance supports Afghan reconciliation with the Taliban provided they meet conditions such as renouncing violence, breaking with al-Qaeda and respecting rights for women.

Karzai last week characterized the U.S. as an occupying force in Afghanistan. Karzai on June 18 told a youth conference that the U.S.-led troops were there for their own national interests and that foreign troops “dishonor the people” of Afghanistan.

--With assistance from Viola Gienger, Roger Runningen and Tony Capaccio in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Don Frederick

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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