WASHINGTON -- In a much-anticipated prime time address on Wednesday, President Barack Obama laid out the beginning of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, assuring the nation that 33,000 U.S. troops will be pulled out by the autumn of 2012. Five thousand troops will be pulled out immediately, with another 5,000 leaving at the end of 2011.
"My fellow Americans, this has been a difficult decade for our country," he said, according to prepared remarks. "Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding."
"Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way," Obama added. "We have ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end."
The 33,000 troops being withdrawn were part of the "surge" that Obama announced in his 2009 speech at West Point. That will leave approximately 68,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, which is still significantly higher than the amount that was in the country when Obama took office.
Administration officials sought to frame the drawdown as a positive result of the war effort, telling reporters in a conference call before the speech that the new strategy was coming "from a position of success and strength" -- a similar phrase to what Obama used in his address.
"We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength," the president said. "Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11. One soldier summed it up well. 'The message,' he said, 'is we don’t forget. You will be held accountable, no matter how long it takes.'"
What was missing from Obama's speech was a timeline for the pace of the withdrawal. A senior administration official said that Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, who will be replacing Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan, will be given "some flexibility" with the drawdown, in terms of "exactly when he gets up to 10,000 this year, and how he fills in the rest of the reductions of the next 23,000 next year."
But in a meeting at the White House, an administration official added that barring something "catastrophic," more troops won't be added, even if conditions on the ground change.
"We don’t have any expectation that there will be requests for additional troops," said the official. "I think the military understood, frankly, the West Point surge, that they weren’t going to come back and ask for more troops. That was kind of agreed to. And in this context, I think the clear message that we’re sending is that the trajectory of this thing is down and that that is both because we believe we can meet our objectives in Afghanistan with less resources; also because we believe that it’s necessary to be serious about transition[ing] to Afghan lead."
Last week, the president met with his national security team, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen and Petraeus. Petraeus is set to take over from Panetta as CIA director, and Panetta was just confirmed to become the next Defense secretary.
On Wednesday, Obama called the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the NATO to inform them of his decision and update them on U.S. efforts. He also called several congressional leaders, and a senior administration official said the president has had a "series of consultations with leaders in Congress" over the past few weeks to seek their input on the war.
In a rare injection of domestic politics in the speech, Obama jumped in to the larger foreign policy discussions taking place in the country.
Obama did not specifically name any party or politician, but a senior administration said it was an attempt to strike a middle ground in "the debate that’s taking place in the country, and particularly in the Republican Party, between kind of this isolationist strain and this kind of perpetual interventionist strain."
"We must chart a more centered course," said the president. "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. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny."
On Pakistan, the president reiterated his belief that Pakistan and Afghanistan are interwoven.
"Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan," he said. "No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve."
Earlier on Wednesday, both House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said they would accept the president's new strategy as long as it had the backing of military leaders.
Two administration officials told The New York Times that Petraeus did not sign off on Obama's decision, and it was a "setback" for the general.
But in Wednesday's press call, the senior administration official assured reporters that the president took his final plan from Petraeus' recommendations.
"Gen. Petraeus presented the president with a range of options for pursuing this drawdown," said the official. "There were certainly options that went beyond what the president settled on in terms of the length of time that it would take to recover the surge and the pace that troops would come out -- so there were options that would have kept troops in Afghanistan longer at a higher number. That said, the president's decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team."
While the decision on troop withdrawal was slated to be made since he rolled out the surge in 2009, the announcement of 30,000 troops has ramifications for the 2012 presidential elections. Opinion polls show the public is souring on Afghanistan, with many Democrats and some Republicans pressing the president to hasten the drawdown. The likelihood that politics was part of the strategic discussion remains high.
Still, the White House official insisted that public opinion didn't "play a role" in Obama's decision on the number of troops to withdraw.
Instead, the official added, the president looked at a "range of things," including the objectives the country is trying to meet in Afghanistan, progress toward defeating al Qaeda and breaking the Taliban's momentum, national security priorities around the world and the cost -- both human and economic -- to the armed forces.
"I think he is certainly aware that the American public, after nearly a decade of war, is of course focused on making sure that we are pursuing a responsible end to these wars," said the official. "And I think that it's an important moment for him to be able to say to the American people, 'We are winding down the war in Iraq. We've removed 100,000 troops there. We're continuing to remove our troops over the course of this year that remain in Iraq. And now we have peaked in Afghanistan and are beginning to come down there as well through a path towards winding down the war in Afghanistan.'"