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Obama Takes the Centrist Option on Withdrawal

By announcing a small troop drawdown, but refraining to set a deadline for full troop withdrawal, Barack Obama is trying to stake out a middle ground in the Afghan war debate.

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Inter Press Service

In a much-anticipated decision, U.S. President Barack Obama announced here Wednesday evening that he will withdraw 10,000 of the 100,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Afghanistan by the end of this year and a total of 33,000 by some time next summer.

In a nationally televised address, Obama said U.S. troops will continue coming home at a "steady pace" so that "by 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."

And he strongly suggested that his plan marked a decisive turning point in the conflicts in which Washington has been embroiled in the nearly ten years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

"Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding," he said. "Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We have ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country," he said.

"And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can been seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end," he stressed, adding with special emphasis several minutes later: "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home."

The 15-minute prime-time address – and the timetable it set forth – appeared to be a compromise between the faction led by outgoing Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the Afghanistan commander, Gen. David Petraeus, that favoured a slower drawdown, and another administration faction, led by Vice President Joe Biden, that has long argued for a "counter-terrorist" (CT) strategy that would require many fewer U.S. and NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan.

Petraeus, who will take over the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later this summer, had let it be known that he wanted to withdraw only a nominal number of troops – no more than 5,000 – by the end of this year and only a few of thousand more in 2012 in order to continue carrying out an ambitious "counter- insurgency" (COIN) strategy through a second "fighting season" against the Taliban focused primarily on eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, where the insurgency remains strongest.

The CT faction, whose position has been significantly strengthened since the May 2 killing by CIA- directed U.S. Special Operations Forces of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and by concerns among a growing number of Republicans about the 10-billion-dollar-a-month cost of the Afghanistan campaign, reportedly favoured a much more rapid drawdown – as much as 30,000 troops by the end of this year and an equal number, if not more, in 2012.

Those differences were reflected in reactions to Wednesday’s speech. While the more hawkish Republican leaders, whose influence on the party has appeared to wane in the past couple of weeks, charged that Obama’s timetable risked undoing the gains made by Petraeus’ COIN strategy, many Democrats expressed disappointment that the president had not opted for a more sizeable withdrawal this year and a more decisive shift to a CT strategy.

Thus, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, called the plan a "positive development, although in my view the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops," while Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, a long-time hawk, complained to CNN that "we’ve undercut a strategy that was working, (and) …may eventually have doomed it fail. We’re going to a counter-terrorism strategy too soon," he warned.

Mindful of the growing conflict within the party between neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who have dominated it since 9/11 and an ascendant coalition of "realists", "isolationists", and fiscal conservatives, other Republicans were more circumspect.

The normally highly partisan speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, for example, issued a mild criticism, arguing that degrading Al-Qaeda’s capabilities in the region "must take priority over any calendar dates" and urging Obama "to continue to listen to our commanders on the ground as we move forward."

Similarly, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the current front-runner in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, asserted that the timetable for withdrawal "should not be based on politics or economics" while the newest entry in the race, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, representing the party’s realist faction, came out strongly for a CT strategy and expressed disappointment that the president had not announced a larger withdrawal.

Under Obama’s timetable, the same number of U.S. troops will be deployed in Afghanistan in September 2012 as in December 2009 when he accepted – to the great frustration of most Democrats – Petraeus’s recommendation to "surge" 33,000 troops into Afghanistan over the following nine months in order to wrest control from the Taliban of the southern part of the country around Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar.

Since taking office in January, 2009, Obama, who had described Afghanistan as a "necessary war" during the 2008 presidential election campaign, has more than tripled U.S. troop strength there.

In his address, Obama stressed that, having "inflicted serious losses on the Taliban," and "taken out more than half of Al-Qaeda’s leadership," including bin Laden, he will start the drawdown "from a position of strength."

He also stressed that a political settlement was the only way to end the conflict and that "America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban," so long as the latter break with Al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept the country’s constitution.

Washington’s goal, he said, "can be expressed simply: no safe haven from which Al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place."

He added that terrorist safe havens in Pakistan must also be addressed, although he did not elaborate on how this will be done. Counter-terrorist co-operation between the U.S. and Pakistan, already strained before the U.S. strike against bin Laden, appears to have deteriorated over the past six weeks.

In addition to splitting the difference between the COIN and CT advocates and anti-war Democrats and hawkish Republicans, Obama quite explicitly depicted himself as a pragmatic centrist in the broader contemporary foreign-policy debate, noting that the past "decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world.

"Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face," he said. "others would have America over- extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

"We must chart a centred course," he went on. "Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force – but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas," he argued.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org).

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