Beginning to wind down a long and devastating war, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday night he was pulling home 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer, withdrawing the "surge" of forces he had sent to rescue a flailing effort. Said Obama to a country eager for an exit: "The tide of war is receding."
A total of 10,000 troops will leave the war zone by the end of this year — fulfilling Obama's promise for a withdrawal starting next month — and more than 20,000 additional forces will leave by the summer of 2012, shortly before the president will go before voters in search of a second term.
Still, almost 70,000 U.S. troops will remain in an unstable country, fighting in a war bound to see more Americans killed. Obama said they will leave at a steady pace, but the U.S. combat mission is not expected to end until December 2014.
The decision was endorsed by the president's team of advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but administration officials said the top Afghanistan commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, preferred to see more troops staying in the near term.
The Pentagon had been hoping to limit the initial withdrawal to 3,000 to 4,000. But the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces last month in Pakistan, combined with budget and political pressures, pushed Obama toward a steeper reduction, according to officials familiar with the internal debate.
Obama's announcement from the White House came in a perilous political environment, with Americans soured on the war and the economy, many members of Congress pushing him to get troops home even faster, and his Republican presidential rivals taking shots at his leadership.
Disgruntled Democrats took Obama to task, however politely, for not withdrawing more troops more quickly.
"I am glad this war is ending, but it's ending at far too slow a pace," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Added the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California: "We will continue to press for a better outcome."
The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year, twice the total of two years ago. Those costs have risen in importance as a divided U.S. government struggles to cut its budget deficits.
Conceding the economic strain of waging war at a time of rising debt and fiscal constraint, Obama said it was time for America "to focus on nation building here at home." The president's chances for re-election rest largely on his ability to show faster job growth in a time of deepening economic pessimism.
"This has been a difficult decade for our country,'' Obama said. "We have learned anew the profound cost of war.''
The withdrawal is supported by the bold bottom-line claims of his security team: Afghanistan, training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, is no longer a launching pad for exporting terrorism and hasn't been for years.
Yet the White House insists the United States must maintain a strong fighting force in Afghanistan for now to keep the country from slipping back into a havenfor al-Qaida terrorists.
The president spoke for about 13 minutes from a silent East Room. It was a strategic moment for him to try to explain a turning point in the war effort without elevating it to a major Oval Office address.
Potential GOP presidential candidates were quick to weigh in with criticism of Obama's plan — but they did not speak with one voice.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama of proposing an "arbitrary timetable" and said the decision on withdrawing troops "should not be based on politics or economics." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said the approach in Afghanistan should be focused on counterterrorism, "which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight."
Information from McClatchy-Tribune News Service was used in this report.