“Tonight,” the president said from the East Room, “we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.”
In contrast to his 2009 decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan, Obama appeared to give greater weight this time to the growing impatience of a war-weary public and a skeptical Congress, whose members have been demanding a rapid drawdown and a narrower mission after nearly a decade of battle.
Obama was a relatively new commander in chief when he authorized the troop “surge” 18 months ago. Today he is a candidate for reelection at the head of a party deeply opposed to the war, and he emphasized his push to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to “reclaim the American dream that is at the center of our story.”
“Over the last decade, we have spent $1 trillion on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” he said in a 13-minute address that sounded at times like a campaign speech. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
Obama’s decision drew a measured response from Capitol Hill, where some Democrats indicated that they will continue to pressure the president for a faster withdrawal.
In a statement, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the plan a “positive development, although in my view the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement that he is “concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced tonight poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made.”
He added: “This is not the ‘modest’ withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated.”
Obama’s plan will also influence U.S. allies in Afghanistan, which supply about 40,000 troops — about 30 percent of the international forces there. Some European leaders are as eager as Obama to end their expensive and politically unpopular commitments to the Afghanistan war effort, and they welcomed the president’s announcement.
On Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France will pull its 4,000 troops out of Afghanistan on the same staggered timetable as the U.S. withdrawal. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country wants to reduce the German contingent of 4,900 troops by the end of 2011--but has not yet formulated a withdrawal plan.