WASHINGTON — U.S. military leaders said Thursday that President Barack Obama's decision to remove forces from Afghanistan in the middle of a fighting season poses some risks to recent battlefield gains, but they publicly supported his plan to bring home 33,000 troops by the end of next summer.
Neither his civilian advisers nor his military commanders won all that they had sought in Obama's withdrawal decision, which will bring home 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 by September 2012. But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan, said in testimony on Capitol Hill that they thought the president had heard their proposals and set a policy they can carry out.
"The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the time line, than what we had recommended," Petraeus told the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on his nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency. "That is understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander."
Lawmakers have offered a mixed reaction to Obama's decision. Some have criticized the drawdown as too precipitous a withdrawal, given the fragility of recent successes, while others have said the plan is too slow, given the mounting domestic demands that are being neglected as a result of the $10-billion-a-month war effort.
But Mullen and Petraeus said Obama effectively assessed the ramifications of withdrawing forces at the pace he chose and that the military will be able to carry out its mission effectively. The drawdown will leave 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of next summer, a bigger force than when Obama took office.
"The fact is that there's never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces that he would like to have, for all the time, with all the money, all the authorities and, nowadays, with all the bandwidth as well," Petraeus said.
His comments echoed Mullen's testimony earlier in the day before the House Armed Services Committee.
"There is no jumping ship here. Quite the contrary," Mullen told the House committee. "We will have at our disposal the great bulk of the surge forces throughout this and most of the next fighting season."
Speaking to soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York on Thursday, the president defended the drawdown plan designed to have 33,000 troops back home by next summer.
"We're not doing it precipitously," Obama said. "We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained."