Barack Obama has begun the long retreat from Afghanistan in a televised statement to the US, declaring success against al-Qaida and the Taliban and the withdrawal of about a third of US forces next year.
Obama said 33,000 US troops would be withdrawn by the summer of 2012 or by September at the latest. The first 5,000 would return next month and another 5,000 by the end of the year.
The president said that when he ordered the 33,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in 2009 they had a clear mission: to refocus on al-Qaida; reverse the Taliban’s momentum; and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country. “Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment,” he said, adding: “We are meeting our goals.”
He was careful to avoid repeating George Bush’s ill-fated prediction on Iraq in 2003 of “mission accomplished”. He settled instead for: “We have put al-Qaida on a path to defeat.”
Obama claimed al-Qaida was under more pressure than at any time since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Half of their leadership has been killed, along with its leader Osama bin Laden. “This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11,” he said.
He addressed criticism that the US should not be spending billions on wars overseas while the country is struggling economically at home and promised to shift from foreign to domestic issues. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” he said.
But US and other Nato military chiefs fear that the president is taking a gamble with the scale of early drawdown, ignoring the advice of US and Nato commanders who warned that withdrawal of anything more than a few thousand in the coming months could endanger substantial gains made over the winter in the battle against the Taliban.
US and Nato commanders argued that they could handle the withdrawal of about 5,000, mainly support staff. But 10,000 this year would create logistical problems and interfere with the summer “fighting season”, they warned.
The decision is a setback for the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who urged only a minimal withdrawal, as did defence secretary Robert Gates, who retires next week. Petraeus, who is to return to Washington as head of the CIA, refused to endorse Obama’s decision, according to administration officials quoted by the New York Times.
If there are military setbacks over the coming year, Obama will be open to accusations that he was overly hasty and that he put politics ahead of security.
Military commanders wanted the number of combat troops held at near to maximum to confront Taliban forces mounting summer offensives this year and next.
Although 30,000 US troops are scheduled to be withdrawn, 70,000 will remain in the country. All US combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014 but a core of trainers and other troops will remain beyond that date. A Nato conference on Afghanistan will be held in Chicago next year.
The withdrawal, which comes against a backdrop of rising US public weariness with the longest war in American history, could form part of Obama’s pitch in the 2012 White House election campaign.
The president phoned leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, Germany and Britain to inform them of his decision. David Cameron is expected to make announcements on substantial UK troop withdrawals at the beginning of July.
It is likely to represent the biggest troop withdrawal since British forces left Iraq but precise numbers have yet to be reached.
In their phone call, Cameron and Obama agreed that good progress was being made by the Afghan army in strengthening security and would be able to manage more of the country on their own. Senior British officials have been in Washington working through the details of the withdrawal with the Americans. Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. Other international forces have another 40,000, bringing the total international force to about 150,000.
Downing Street said last night: “The prime minister fully agreed with the president’s assessment, noting the good progress being made on security transition. The prime minister and president agreed that in due course the progress on transition would make it possible to sustain pressure on the insurgency while allowing a progressive reduction in [troop] levels.
“The prime minister reaffirmed that UK forces will no longer be in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015 and that decisions on the scale and timing of reductions over the intervening period would be based on conditions on the ground.”
One White House official said that there had been no terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the last seven or eight years and the main threat had been from Pakistan. The US and its Nato allies had been able to degrade the ability of al-Qaida to recruit, train and carry out operations and had killed many of its leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US assessment may turn out to be over-optimistic, given the Taliban’s ability in the past to mount surprise attacks, the corruption in the Afghanistan government, the shakiness of Afghan army and police forces, and the double-games played by the Pakistan intelligence services.
John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, speaking before the announcement, expressed caution about a “precipitous withdrawal”.
Downing Street accepted that the UK and US assessment of the threat posed by Afghanistan to security in the west is similar. The prime minister’s spokesman was adamant yesterday that Cameron’s assertion that UK combat operations would end in Afghanistan in 2015 was a deadline that would not be breached. That leaves open the possibility of UK troops remaining to train and mentor Afghan forces.
Cameron’s relatively inflexible position is not supported by the Conservative chairman of the defence select committee James Arbuthnot.
Arbuthnot said unless there was greater clarity about what UK troops would remain and the degree “of nuance and flexibility, then Britain runs the risk of destabilising local people who won’t be sure whether the coalition is going to desert them”. He added: “If we stick to a completely arbitrary date and withdraw whatever the conditions then that would be a serious betrayal not only of our people but of the Afghan people”.
Obama’s speech came as William Hague, the foreign secretary, held talks today with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul and visited UK troops in Helmand. In an effort to underline Arab support for the military operation, he was accompanied by his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Speaking in the capital, Hague said the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan would continue for “many years” after the withdrawal of combat troops.