President Barack Obama's speech announcing that the 33,000 "surge" troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by "summer" 2012 indicates that he has given priority to the interests of the military and the Pentagon over concerns by key officials in his administration over the impact of the war's costs on domestic socioeconomic needs.
And in a section of the speech that must be interpreted in the context of his past policy decisions on Iraq, Obama appeared to support the desire of Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus to keep a substantial number of combat troops in Afghanistan beyond the publicly announced "transition" in 2014.
Gates and Petraeus got most of what they wanted from Obama in regard to the withdrawal of the "surge" troops.
Petraeus had argued that he needed two more full "fighting seasons" with the bulk of the surge troops still remaining in the country to wear down the Taliban before the start of the "transition" in 2014, according to a report in The Guardian.
Published reports had indicated that Petraeus wanted the withdrawal next month to be limited to 5,000 troops. Obama said the first phase of the withdrawal would consist of 10,000 troops to start in July but would be completed only at the end of the year.
The Obama decision gives Petraeus the first full season with all or almost all of the troops he had wanted.
Petraeus' preferred option was to delay the withdrawal of the bulk of the remaining surge troops until the end of 2012, but he got most of the second fighting season with troop levels that were well within his recommendations, according to a briefing for reporters by senior officials.
Although the speech says "we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer"....an official stated clearly at the press briefing that the withdrawal of the surge troops would be carried out by September 2012.
Obama also left the door open in the speech to leaving a significant proportion of the combat troops to remain in Afghanistan after the 2012 withdrawal for an indefinite period beyond the 2014 "transition" to Afghan responsibility for security.
"After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security Forces move into the lead," Obama said. "Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014 this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."
That language parallels the language used in regard to U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. In fact, a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters Wednesday afternoon drew attention to the parallel between the two withdrawal processes, saying the administration would "pursue the same type of responsible effort to wind down the war that we've undertaken in Iraq the last two years."
One of the key features of the Iraq model is Obama's retention of U.S. brigade combat teams in Iraq under the label of "non-combat troops" until the present, despite his pledge in February 2009 that they would be withdrawn.
U.S. troops continue to carry out unilateral combat patrols in Iraq, and Gates has continued to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a request to keep U.S. combat troops there beyond the deadline for withdrawal under the November 2008 agreement.
The language of the speech thus laid the groundwork for the retention of combat troops in Afghanistan even after declaring that all combat troops have been withdrawn.
Gates and Petraeus have assumed that the military must have the flexibility to continue the military engagement in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to avoid a collapse of the U.S.-NATO position and of the Hamid Karzai regime. Based on that presumption, Gates and Petraeus effectively maneuvered Obama last year into abandoning his initial decision identifying July 2011 as a crucial date for the transition to Afghan responsibility for security.
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