Karzai says Afghans will step up after Obama announces US troop drawdown

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that the "preservation of this land is the job of Afghans," hours a fter Barack Obama announced he would bring 33,000 U.S. troops home by next summer.

On Wednesday night, Obama said there would be an initial drawdown of 10,000 troops in two phases, with 5,000 troops coming home this summer and 5,000 more by the end of the year. An additional 23,000 would follow by September 2012.

In a nationally televised speech outlining a shift in U.S. policy, Obama said that after the initial reduction, more troops would 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," the president said. "America, it is time to focus on nation building at home."

Obama said that 10,000 troops would 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 was able to remove troops because al-Qaida was under more pressure than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that precipitated the war.

He said the United States would join initiatives aimed at reconciling the Afghan people, including the Taliban, as the Afghan government and security forces are strengthened.

Karzai spoke briefly from the presidential palace Thursday morning, thanking international troops for their support and adding that "the people of Afghanistan will be protecting their homeland."

"The Afghan people's trust in the Afghan army and police is growing every day and preservation of this land is the job of Afghans," Karzai told a news conference.

"I welcome the decision of the U.S. president today on pulling out (some of) ... its troops from Afghanistan and I consider this a right decision for the interest of both countries," he said.

"The transition of the security and the withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan means the Afghan forces must be strengthened," he added.

Also on Thursday, a special Afghan tribunal overturned nearly 25 percent of last year's legislative election results, alleging massive fraud and putting into question who will control the parliament — one of the few checks on Karzai.

Lawmakers on the parliament floor shouted about the "illegal" special tribunal and threatened to hold demonstrations against what they saw as a power grab by Karzai.

'Pointless bloodshed' The U.S. and its allies have set Dec. 31, 2014, as a target date for ending the combat mission in Afghanistan.

Karzai, who has increased his criticism of the U.S.-led NATO force in recent months, said he and others welcomed the withdrawals as "a good measure."
The Taliban promised to fight as long as foreign soldiers remain there.

In a rare statement in English, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the U.S. "must take serious steps to stop this pointless bloodshed."

The "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again wants to make it clear that the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and until this ... happens, our armed struggle will increase from day to day," Mujahid said.

Also on Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the progressive withdrawal of France's troops from Afghanistan on a timetable matching the American troop pullout that starts this summer. France currently has about 4,000 troops in the country.

Perilous political environment
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.

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.

Obama's decision on a full withdrawal of the 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.

However, 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.