June 23, 2011

Obama's Afghan Withdrawal Timetable Given Lukewarm Reaction In U.S.

Barack Obama's much-trailed announcement of a one-third reduction in US troop numbers in Afghanistan by the end of next year has been criticised on both flanks as a compromise that "will please no one".

Senior Republicans have condemned his decision to bring back more troops than his military advisors wanted, yet he has also taken flak from his own party for not withdrawing fast enough.

Obama will today visit Fort Drum army base in New York state to push home his message that America's wars are coming to an end, with Iraq winding down and 33,000 troops returning from Afghanistan. Fort Drum is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the US army's divisions most frequently deployed in Afghanistan.

But Republican leaders expressed unease that Obama had ignored the advice of the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who had urged only modest withdrawals.

Senator John McCain, Obama's rival for the White House in 2008, led the Republican critique. "I am concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced tonight poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made," McCain said. "This is not the 'modest' withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated."

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republian and specialist in foreign affairs, described it up as a victory for vice-president Joe Biden, who has long advocated reducing the US presence, and a loss for Petraeus. He however expressed concern that the reduction could undermine the progress that troops have made against the Taliban.

Summing up the Republican view, the party's Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, said: "The drawdown of forces described by the president needs to be conducted in a manner that respects the professional judgment of our military commanders, preserves the security gains of the last year and allows for a slower pace of withdrawal if necessary."

David Barno, a retired lieutenant-general and now foreign affairs and defence specialist at the Centre for New American Security, said Obama would "ultimately please no one" at home or in the region. "In the end, the key strategic issue for the United States will be whether America's friends and adversaries around the world assess this speech an expression of US resolve — or as the starting gun signalling a wider US global retrenchment," Barno said.

Democrats who had pushed for speedier and more significant cuts in forces were also disappointed. The Democratic leader in the House, former speaker Nancy Pelosi, said: "It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of US forces would happen sooner than the president laid out, and we will continue to press for a better outcome."

Another Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, said: "I am glad this war is ending, but it's ending at far too slow a pace."

Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution and author of Toughing It Out in Afghanistan, had mixed feelings about the announcement. "The president's plan strikes me as solid in concept but a bit rushed," he said. "Ideally next year's drawdown would have until the end of the year or until early 2013 so the US troops could successfully conclude the fighting season."

Bruce Riedel, who was a senior adviser to Obama on Afghanistan and is now at Brookings, noted that the president had said little about Pakistan. "We didn't get many insights on this troubled relationship which far more important than that with Afghanistan," Riedel said.