President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he has decided to bring 33,000 American troops home from the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan by next summer.
In a nationally televised speech outlining a shift in U.S. policy, Obama said that after the initial reduction, more troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan at a steady pace as Afghans take over their own security by 2014.
"Huge challenges remain. This is the beginning — but not the end of our effort to wind down this war," Obama said. "America, it is time to focus on nation building at home."
Obama said that 10,000 troops will be transferred out of Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 will come home no later than September 2012. That's the full 33,000 deployed as part of the "surge" that Obama ordered in 2009.
"The tide of war is receding," he said to war-weary Americans eager for an exit to the conflict.
Obama said the United States is able to remove troops because al-Qaida is under more pressure than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that precipitated the war.
He said the United States will join initiatives aimed at reconciling the Afghan people, including the Taliban, as the Afghan government and security forces are strengthened.
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 at every chance.
Disgruntled Democrats took Obama to task, however politely, for not withdrawing more troops more quickly.
Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the president's time frame for withdrawal from Afghanistan wasn't aggressive enough.
"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out — and we will continue to press for a better outcome," she said, leading a chorus of disgruntled Democrats who took the president to task, albeit politely.
"I am glad this war is ending, but it's ending at far too slow a pace," said Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, said in a statement that "continuing to degrade al-Qaida's capabilities in Afghanistan and the surrounding region must take priority over any calendar dates."
At least 1,500 members of the U.S. military have died and 12,000 have been wounded since the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The war's financial cost 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.
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.
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.
Obama's decision on a full withdrawal of surge troops was somewhat of a surprise. Earlier reports put the expected withdrawal at 5,000 troops by this summer and 5,000 more by winter or spring 2012, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
Obama's decision on a quicker drawdown is also a victory for Vice President Joe Biden, the New York Times reported. Biden has long argued for cutting back on the American military engagement in Afghanistan. The plan is also seen as a setback Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, who had recommended limited withdrawals to avoid losing fragile gains.
Two administration officials told The Times that Petraeus did not endorse the decision, though both Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reluctantly accepted it.
A senior Pentagon official told NBC News that Pentagon and military officials had argued against pulling all 33,000 surge troops out of Afghanistan "in the middle of the fighting season," next summer. According to the official, the military clearly wanted as many of the surge forces as possible "through next year's fighting season," which would end in October.
The official added, however, that the president's decision, "may be the least of the bad options." The official said the White House had first proposed that all surge forces be pulled out by the end of this year.
One Pentagon official suggested that the president's decision to pull the troops out by Sept. 1 is clearly a political deadline, tied to the November elections.
But according to a senior administration official, the rationale for the withdrawal had more to do with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
"We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years," the official said. Scattered "al-Qaida types" are focused on tactical fighting inside Afghanistan, he said. "They are focused inside Afghanistan with no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders."
Britain's Guardian newspaper . They suggested that the drawdown should begin in 2013 amid fears that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the fragile security gains, according to the Guardian.
"They say they need another full year of this," the Guardian quoted an unidentified official as saying. "They want as much as possible for as long as possible."
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.
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.
But serious doubts remain about whether Afghan forces, plagued by desertion and illiteracy, will be up to the task.
'An expensive war'Obama is mindful of the American public's lack of support for the war as he looks to his 2012 re-election campaign.
A Pew Research poll released on Tuesday found a record 56 percent of Americans favor bringing U.S. forces in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible.
Obama will visit troops Thursday at Fort Drum, the New York state Army post that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan.
"There's almost no decision Obama can make that's a good one," said Robert Lamb, a conflict expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We are in an economic crisis and this an expensive war. On the other hand, we can't leave an Afghanistan that is unstable — it's not in our interest to be seen as cutting and running."