President Obama announced in a prime-time address that he will order home 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by summer 2012. Post reporters Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Greg Jaffe and Peter Wallsten were on hand to provide live analysis of the speech.
UPDATE 8:06 p.m. Greg Jaffe:
“Afghan Security Forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people.”
The President is correct that some provinces are shifting to Afghan control, but most of those areas that have been turned over to Afghan forces were never seriously contested by the Taliban. The real test of the administration’s strategy will be whether NATO forces can transition areas in the east and south, areas that have traditionally been Taliban strongholds. So far those kinds of transfers have not happened and likely won’t occur until later this year or possibly early next year. One of the arguments for going slower was that the U.S. would have extra troops on hand to deal with setbacks if areas turned over to Afghan Security forces were retaken by the Taliban.
UPDATE 8:08 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
The removal of all of the surge forces by next summer -- a drawdown pace that is far steeper than the military wanted -- will create enormous logical challenges for U.S. commanders. It will force the military to reverse some of its supply lines and could result in a potential realignment of the troops that will remain in the country.
UPDATE 8:11 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.”
A significant reason for the pace of the drawdown is the cost of the war. It costs about $1 million per trooper per year. The U.S. government plans to spend $107 billion on the war next year, a figure that many of the president’s advisers believe is unsustainably high at a time of economic challenge at home.
UPDATE 8:14 p.m. Peter Wallsten:
Much of the speech’s beginning is devoted to shielding himself from arguments that a drawdown is a sign of weakness. President Obama takes credit for killing bin Laden and claims a “position of strength” in Afghanistan. He offers repeated promises to keep the heat on terrorists, with Bush-like promises to “not relent until the job is done.” The White House clearly foresees attacks from Republican campaign rivals that Obama is erring in not following the desires of his generals.
UPDATE 8:16 p.m. Greg Jaffe:
On reconciliation talks with Taliban, President Obama said “in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that if the U.S. and Afghans can keep pressure on the Taliban up through this summer and fall that the Taliban leadership might be inclined to come to the table for serious peace talks this winter. Skeptics of this theory argue that the Taliban resistance is too localized for any kind of grand bargain that would susbstantially reduce violence. Some hawks will argue that the drawdown also could lead the Taliban that they can wait out the current surge offensives.
UPDATE 8:17 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
The decision to pull out all of the surge forces by next September likely will impact the ability of U.S. commanders to mount a more intense counterinsurgency effort in eastern Afghanistan, which violence levels have increased markedly over the past year. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan,wanted to move troops from the south to the east next year. The withdrawal plans may prevent his nominated successor, Lt. Gen. John Allen, from doing it -- at least in the same way Petraeus had envisioned.
UPDATE 8:19 p.m. Peter Wallsten:
The reference to war in Libya, as a model for future US involvement, is unlikely to sway critics on the left or right who question the legitimacy of Obama’s policy there.
UPDATE 8:20 p.m. Peter Wallsten:
This is an important quote: “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” It is a line that critics in both parties have been using with greater frequency in criticizing American involvement abroad. Strategists believe it appeals to independent voters, who are most worried about U.S. economy and infrastructure – and about the costs of war.
UPDATE 8:21 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
More on my initial post: The September 2012 deadline doesn’t mean the remaining 23,000 surge troops will be fighting until Aug. 31. Commanders will have to start pulling them out in the months leading up to that deadline. It won’t be possible to bring them all out in a week or two. What this means is that the military will not have all the surge forces for the entire 2012 fighting season.
UPDATE 8:23 p.m Greg Jaffe:
“America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” This sentiment from President Obama is something that most American’s would agree with and reflects why the the military’s favored approach to fighting these wars -- a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy -- is so unpopular with many in the country. The approach is troop intensive and extremely costly. One of its fundamental tenets is that these sorts of wars can’t be won with killing alone. U.S. troops and civilians also have to focus on building Afghan government and improving the economy and infrastructure in war torn places like Afghanistan. In essence, the success of any counterinsurgency strategy requires a significant amount of nation-building.
UPDATE 8:24 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
How will this speech echo in Kabul and Islamabad and, more importantly, in the tribal regions of Pakistan and in Quetta? Will it be seen as an American exit or a sign that significant numbers of troops will remain through 2013? That will impact the chances of a peace deal with Taliban groups.
UPDATE 8:25 p.m. Greg Jaffe:
Gates statement issued just after Obama finished his speech: “I support the President’s decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.” It’s clear that Gates would have preferred the surge troops stay in place through the end of 2012. But his statement suggests he still believes that the military will have enough forces to continue with the current counterinsurgency strategy. One big plus: Afghan security forces are growing a good bit faster than anyone expected when Obama delivered his West Point address 18 months ago. The quality though is the big question.
UPDATE 8:27 p.m. Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
One element of the speech that may hearten the military: There was no explicit mention of combat forces for the 10,000 to be withdrawn this year. This could allow commanders to make support and logistics troops a large proportion of that group. The same goes for the remaining 23,000. If commanders can find ways to reduce the headcount on big bases, they can reduce the proportion of infantry troops subjected to the drawdown.
UPDATE 8:28 p.m. Peter Wallsten:
It will be interesting to see Republican reaction in the coming days. Many GOP leaders will likely criticize President Obama for risking setbacks. But the Republican Party is divided, and the party’s 2012 front-runners will have to contend with the many voters in the party – including many “tea party” voters – who support steep drawdowns. Obama, meantime, will be attacked from his liberal base for leaving so many troops in place. From a purely political perspective, Obama may have found the most feasible position on the spectrum.
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