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Obama Leaves Door Open to Long-Term U.S. Afghan Combat

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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"surge" troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by "summer"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

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.

Even after 2014 was set as the date for completing U.S. combat
operations and turning responsibility over to the Afghan government,
Gates and Petraeus regarded the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces as
only an "aspirational goal," as Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell put

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)

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