WASHINGTON — Beginning to wind down a long and devastating war, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday night he was pulling home 33,000 U.S. 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 — and even then, a sizable and enduring contingent may remain in a different role.
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.
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. But that could also fuel arguments for even greater withdrawals by voters wondering what the point of the war is after all these years, especially since the face of the enemy — al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden — was killed by American forces this spring during a raid in Pakistan.
Yet the White House insists the U.S. must maintain a strong fighting force in Afghanistan for now to keep the country from slipping back into a haven for al-Qaida terrorists.
Even after the troops come home, the war will remain expanded on Obama’s watch. He approved 21,000 additional troops for Afghanistan
shortly after taking office in 2009, bringing the total number
to 68,000. That means he is likely to face re-election with more troops in Afghanistan than when he took office, although he has also dramatically reduced the U.S. footprint in Iraq.
“Of course, huge challenges remain,” the president said. “This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war.”