WASHINGTON/KABUL, (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama announced steps for a phased pullout of 100,000 troops from Afghanistan to end a costly war launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks and switch the focus to the troubled U.S. economy.
But the Afghan Taliban, resurgent a decade after being toppled from power, dismissed Obama’s announcement as symbolic and said only a full, immediate withdrawal of foreign forces could stop “pointless bloodshed.” They rejected any suggestion of U.S. gains against the insurgents.
In a prime-time televised appearance on Wednesday, Obama said he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, with a further 23,000 by the end of next summer. Remaining troops would be steadily withdrawan after that.
He vowed that the United States — struggling to restore its global image, shore up the economy and reduce unemployment at home — would exercise new restraint with military power.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said in a 15-minute statement, heralding the gradual reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq and limited U.S. involvement in the international air campaign against Libya.
“America, it is time to focus on nation building at home.”
The Islamist Taliban said the proposal would solve nothing.
“Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again wants to make it clear that the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and (while) this does not happen, our armed struggle will increase from day to day,” they said in a statement emailed to media.
Any U.S. suggestion, they said, of “making headway in Afghanistan and Obama’s proclamation of them being in a stronger position are nothing more than baseless claims and propaganda.”
The Taliban have been pushed out of some areas of their southern heartland, but the insurgency has intensified along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan and U.S. commanders are expected to shift their focus to that area.
U.S. and NATO forces, with Britain and Germany supplying the next largest contingents, have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the Taliban, in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The government in power since the U.S.-led drive ousted the Islamists remains weak and corrupt. Billions of dollars in foreign aid efforts have yielded meagre results.
OBAMA PITTED AGAINST MILITARY ADVISERS
And Obama’s plan, which will bring home the entire “surge” force he sent to Afghanistan in 2010, pits him against military advisers unhappy at the prospect of any hasty drawdown.
The cuts went further than many expected, in particular options offered by General David Petraeus, outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, now due to lead the CIA.
The president’s decision reflected the competing pressures he faces as he seeks to curb spending and halt U.S. casualties without allowing the threat of extremist attacks to fester.
Outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates backed Obama’s plan. But it is unlikely to sit well with the Pentagon’s top brass who worry insurgents could regain lost territory.
“Having all the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer’s fighting season,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even after the withdrawal of 33,000 troops, about 70,000 will remain, about twice the number when Obama took office. Some U.S. lawmakers, impatient with a war that costs more than $110 billion (68.5 billion pounds) a year, said Obama should have cut deeper and faster.
Unease over the war has escalated with worries about budget deficits, national debt and unemployment of more than 9 percent — the issues likely to drive voters as Obama gears up for his re-election campaign next year.
NARROW, DEFENSIVE APPROACH
The debate over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has shifted since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month.
The Obama administration has since argued more forcefully that it must adopt a narrow, defensive approach to Afghanistan, focussing on lawless havens insurgents can use to launch attacks.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” Obama said. “That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”
He said the United States would continue to support efforts towards a political settlement. While officials acknowledge a peace deal with the Taliban may be far in the future, Obama said there was “reason to believe” that progress could be made.
But conditions in Afghanistan remain volatile as NATO begins to hand over to local forces under a plan to put Afghan soldiers in charge by the end of 2014. And European nations may now be emboldened to withdraw troops more quickly.
Obama signalled that he was now reversing a post-September 11 burst of military engagements that often focussed on repairing broken nations through troop-heavy counter-insurgency tactics.
He touted progress in bringing soldiers home also from Iraq. U.S. troops there are due to withdraw fully by year’s end unless a new deal can be struck with Baghdad. The Iraq war, together with Afghanistan, has killed some 6,000 U.S. soldiers in addition to tens of thousands of foreign troops and civilians.
Even as Obama charts a course for leaving Afghanistan, a major threat remains in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Obama warned Pakistan that the United States would not hesitate to launch strikes on militants targeting Americans.