President Barack Obama ordered all 33,000 US surge troops home from Afghanistan by next summer, declared the beginning of the end of the war and vowed to turn to “nation building” at home.
In a pivotal moment for US national security strategy, Obama also signaled in a 13-minute primetime speech last night (DID YOU WATCH?) that the United States would no longer try to build a “perfect” Afghanistan from a nation ravaged by generations of violence.
“Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House in an address blanketing US television networks at a time of rising discontent on the war.
“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’s speech came as domestic political support fades for the war following the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS, and as Washington backs fragile Afghan reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
His decision on troop numbers amounted to a rejection of appeals from the Pentagon for a slower drawdown to safeguard gains against the Taliban and to allow a new counter-insurgency mission to unfold in eastern Afghanistan.
The president said that he would, as promised, begin the US withdrawal this July and that 10,000 of the more than 30,000 troops he sent to war in an escalation of the conflict in 2009 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A further 23,000 surge troops will be withdrawn by next summer, and more yet-to-be announced drawdowns will continue, until Afghan forces assume security responsibility in 2014.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.
“We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.”
Though Obama said the tide of war was receding, there will still be more than 65,000 troops in Afghanistan when he asks Americans to give him a second term in November 2012.
He said that documents seized from Osama’s compound in Pakistan showed that the Al-Qaeda organization was under “enormous strain.”
“(Osama) Bin Laden expressed concern that Al-Qaeda has been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that have been killed, and that Al-Qaeda has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam — thereby draining more widespread support,” he said.
Some of Obama’s fellow Democrats and some Republicans are demanding a faster US exit from Afghanistan, and questioning the huge $10 billion a month cost of the conflict at a time of deep fiscal pain.
Obama argued the surge had made progress towards key objectives he laid down at the start of the escalation, namely: reversing Taliban momentum, disrupting and dismantling Al-Qaeda and building Afghan forces towards an eventual assumption of security duties.