WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama Wednesday ordered all 33,000 US surge troops home from Afghanistan by next summer and declared the beginning of the end of the war, vowing to turn to nation building at home.
In a watershed moment for American foreign policy, Obama also significantly curtailed US war aims, saying Washington would no longer try to build a “perfect” Afghanistan from a nation traumatized by its blood soaked history.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said in 13-minute primetime speech at a time of rising fatigue over costly foreign wars among Americans ground down by deep economic insecurity.
“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,” Obama said.
The president argued US forces had made large strides towards the objectives of the troop surge strategy he ordered in December 2009 by reversing Taliban momentum, crushing al Qaeda and training new Afghan forces.
But he ultimately rejected appeals from the Pentagon for a slower drawdown to safeguard gains against the Taliban and his decision will be seen as a political defeat for talismanic war General David Petraeus.
The president said he would, as promised, begin the US withdrawal this July and that 10,000 of the more than 30,000 troops he committed to the escalation of the conflict would be home this year.
A further 23,000 surge troops will be withdrawn by next summer, and more yet-to-be announced drawdowns will continue, until Afghan forces assume security responsibility in 2014.
“This is the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama said.
However, despite Obama’s stirring words, it is possible Taliban forces will be emboldened by signs of an accelerated US exit from the conflict.
More than 1,600 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the US invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The US death toll already this year stands at 187.
Despite Pentagon appeals for a more modest drawdown, Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly said he supported the plan.
“It provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion,” the outgoing Pentagon chief said in a statement.
The president’s speech came as domestic questions mount over the purpose of the Afghan war, following the killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs last month, and as Washington backs fragile Afghan reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
The US leader said he believed progress could be made with the talks “in part because of our military effort,” and pledged America would back initiatives “that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.”
But despite the drawdowns, there will still be more than 65,000 troops in Afghanistan when Obama seeks a second term in November 2012 elections.
Turning to al Qaeda, Obama said documents seized from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan showed the organization was under “enormous strain.”
One official said the US operation against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan tribal regions had “exceeded our expectations,” saying 20 of the group’s top 30 leaders, had been killed in the last year.
With US ties with Pakistan still raw after the Bin Laden raid, Obama warned he would insist Islamabad keep its commitments to fight the “cancer” of violent extremism.
Obama’s plans drew a mixed reaction.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the partial withdrawal was a “natural result” of progress on the ground.
“We can see the tide is turning. The Taliban are under pressure. The Afghan security forces are getting stronger every day. And the transition to Afghan security lead is on track to be completed in 2014,” he added.
But hawkish Republican Senator John McCain said Obama was taking an “unnecessary risk” and noted Petraeus and Gates had recommended a slower withdrawal.
And Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested Obama’s motivation was political.
“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan,” Romney said.
Obama also placed the Afghan mission in the context of his wider foreign policy and war strategy, arguing he has drawn down 100,000 troops from Iraq and will oversee the full withdrawal by the end of this year.
He announced a NATO summit to review progress on Afghanistan will take place in Chicago in May 2012, alongside the G8 summit of industrialized nations.