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President Obama likely to bring 10,000 troops home from Afghanistan this year

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama will map a course for drawing down the nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan Wednesday, when he is expected to set a target of bringing home about 30,000 troops by the end of 2012.
The president is likely to pull out 10,000 troops by the end of
this year, administration and Pentagon officials said, and aims to
bring another 20,000 home by the end of next year.
But with 100,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, that
drawdown may not be substantial enough to satisfy some lawmakers on
Capitol Hill and a war-weary public.
The initial withdrawal is expected to happen in two phases, with
5,000 troops coming home this summer and an additional 5,000 by the
end of the year, a senior U.S. defense official said.
The pace of bringing home the other 20,000 forces was unclear
heading into Obama's primetime address to the nation Wednesday. The
White House opted not to give the president's speech the weight of
an Oval Office address. Instead, Obama was to speak for about 10 to
15 minutes from the East Room of the White House.
Obama's expected blueprint focuses on the 30,000 surge forces he
ordered to Afghanistan as part of his 2009 decision to send
reinforcements to reverse the Taliban's battlefield momentum.
The president reached his decision a week after receiving a
range of options from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO
commander in Afghanistan. Obama informed his senior national
security advisers, including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, of his plans
during a White House meeting Tuesday.
"The president is commander in chief," spokesman Jay Carney
said. "He is in charge of this process, and he makes the
The administration has begun briefing NATO allies on its plans.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's office confirmed that
officials there have been informed but declined to offer comment,
or to make any immediate statement on the plans for about 9,500
British forces in Afghanistan.
The withdrawals would put the U.S. on a path toward giving
Afghans control of their security by 2014 and ultimately shifting
the U.S. military from a combat role to a mission focused on
training and supporting Afghan forces.
The Obama administration has said its goal in continuing the
Afghanistan war is to blunt the Taliban insurgency and dismantle
and defeat al-Qaida, the terror network that used the country as a
training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. As of
Tuesday, at least 1,522 members of the U.S. military had died in
Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late
2001, according to an Associated Press count.
The U.S. and its allies have set Dec. 31, 2014, as a target date
for ending the combat mission in Afghanistan.
A reduction this year totaling 10,000 troops would be the rough
equivalent of two brigades, which are the main building blocks of
an Army division. It's not clear whether Obama's decision would
require the Pentagon to pull out two full brigades or, instead,
withdraw a collection of smaller combat and support units with an
equivalent number of troops.
If Obama were to leave the bulk of the 30,000 surge contingent
in Afghanistan through 2012, he would be giving the military
another fighting season - in addition to the one now under way - to
further damage Taliban forces before a larger withdrawal got
started. It also would buy more time for the Afghan army and police
to grow in numbers and capability.
Under that scenario, the emphasis in U.S.-led military
operations is likely to shift away from troop-intensive
counterinsurgency operations toward more narrowly focused
counterterrorism operations, which focus on capturing and killing
Afghan security forces and judicial institutions are expected to
take up many aspects of the counterinsurgency fight by establishing
the rule of law and respect for government institutions, U.S.
officials in Afghanistan said Tuesday.
In recent speeches, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized
American forces, suggesting his ally is in danger of becoming an
occupying force. He has even threatened action against
international forces that conduct airstrikes and has accused allies
of undermining and corrupting his government.
Yet there are concerns in his country about the withdrawals.
Some of the areas slated to transition to Afghan control have been
struck by attacks in recent weeks despite assertions by Karzai that
peace talks have started between the U.S., his Afghan government
and Taliban emissaries. Publicly, the Taliban say there will be no
negotiations until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
The transition to full Afghan control will begin in earnest on
July 20 in five provincial capital cities and two provinces. The
provincial capitals identified for transition are Lashkar Gah in
Helmand province, plus capitals from provinces in the west, east
and north and most of Kabul, the nation's capital. The largely
peaceful northern provinces of Bamyan and Panjshir will also start
to transition to Afghan control.
Some U.S. military commanders have favored a more gradual
reduction in troops than Obama is expected to announce Wednesday
night, arguing that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the
fragile security gains.
But other advisers have backed a more significant withdrawal
that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following
months. That camp believes the slow yet steady improvements in
security, combined with the killing of Osama bin Laden and U.S.
success in dismantling much of the al-Qaida network in the country,
give the president an opportunity to make larger reductions this
Obama previously has said he favors a "significant" withdrawal
beginning in July, his self-imposed deadline for starting to bring
U.S. troops home. Aides, however, have never quantified that
Pressure for a substantial withdrawal has been mounting from the
public and Congress. Even Gates, who has said he favored a
"modest" withdrawal, said Tuesday that Obama's decision needed to
incorporate domestic concerns about the war.
"It goes without saying that there are a lot of reservations in
the Congress about the war in Afghanistan and our level of
commitment," Gates said during a news conference at the State
Department. "There are concerns among the American people who are
tired of a decade of war."
According to an Associated Press-GfK poll last month, 80 percent
of Americans say they approve of Obama's decision to begin
withdrawal of combat troops in July and end U.S. combat operations
in Afghanistan by 2014. Just 15 percent disapprove.
On Capitol Hill, even the more moderate or conservative members
of his party, such as Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Joe
Manchin of West Virginia, are pressing for significant cuts and a
shift in mission.
"The question the president faces - we all face - is quite
simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light
of our nation's fiscal peril, we cannot do both," Manchin said
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, said improved conditions in Afghanistan would permit
Obama to withdraw at least 15,000 troops by the end of the year.
Obama aides have sidestepped questions about what role the cost
of the war in Afghanistan played in Obama's decision, saying only
that the president was focused on meeting the goal of transferring
security by 2014.
Following the announcement on the drawdown, Obama will visit
troops Thursday at Fort Drum, the upstate New York Army post that
is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently
deployed divisions to Afghanistan.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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