At a meeting of his war cabinet this month, Obama expressed displeasure with such characterizations of the withdrawal, according to three senior officials with direct knowledge of the session. “The president made it clear that he wants a meaningful drawdown to start in July,” said one of the officials, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
The divergent views about the withdrawal illustrate the unresolved tensions between Obama’s military and civilian advisers over the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a failing war. Although military officials contend that the surge has enabled U.S. forces to blunt the Taliban in key areas over the past several months, White House officials remain skeptical that those gains will survive without the presence of American troops and without U.S. financial aid.
Complicating the debate is growing concern in Washington about the war’s cost, which is estimated to reach $120 billion this year, and polls that show increasing disenchantment, even among Republicans, with a mission that has turned into a complicated nation-building endeavor.
As both sides prepare for what they expect to be a vigorous debate, they are seeking ways to achieve their favored outcome by limiting what the other can do. For the military, that means crafting a narrow set of choices, because there is general agreement that reduction numbers need to originate in the field, not be imposed by the White House. But the National Security Council may attempt to impose its own limitations by setting a date by which all the surge forces must be brought home, the officials said.
Although Obama approved a 30,000-troop increase sought by the military in 2009, he made clear that the surge forces would begin returning home by July 2011. But the pace of that reduction has been in dispute since the president’s surge announcement, with Defense Department officials describing the initial reductions as minor and some of Obama’s other advisers, including Vice President Biden, saying the pullout would be as rapid as the deployment of the surge troops.
Petraeus has said that he will give the president a range of withdrawal options, one of which he will recommend.
Two senior military officials said one set of options being developed by staff officers in Kabul involves three choices: the removal of almost no forces; the withdrawal of a few thousand support personnel, including headquarters staff, engineers and logisticians; and the pullout of a brigade’s worth of troops — about 5,000 personnel— by culling a battalion of Marines in Helmand province that was added after the surge, a contingent of soldiers training Afghan security forces and an Army infantry battalion in either the country’s east or far west.