World

Obama may cut 10,000 troops from Afghanistan

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to call Wednesday for a major withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, with roughly 10,000 coming home to the U.S. in less than a year.
At least 5,000 U.S. troops may be recalled this summer and an additional 5,000 by winter or spring 2012. (Pier Paolo Cito/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to call Wednesday for a major withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, with roughly 10,000 coming home to the U.S. in less than a year.

The phased drawdown is likely to start with 5,000 troops recalled this summer and an additional 5,000 by winter or spring 2012, according to a senior U.S. defence official.

Obama is also weighing a timetable for bringing home the 20,000 other troops he ordered to Afghanistan as part of his December 2009 decision to send reinforcements to reverse the Taliban's battlefield momentum.

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.

Obama is to address the nation from the White House at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.

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 Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, of his plans during a White House meeting on Tuesday.

"The president is commander-in-chief," said spokesman Jay Carney. "He is in charge of this process, and he makes the decision."

The Obama administration has said its goal in continuing the Afghan war, now in its 10th year, is to blunt the Taliban insurgency and dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda, the terror network that used Afghanistan as a training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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.

Roughly 100,000 U.S. troops are in the country, three times as many as when Obama took office.

Even by drawing down the 30,000 surge forces, there will still be great uncertainty about how long the remaining 70,000 troops would stay there, although 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 totalling 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, a collection of smaller combat and support units with an equivalent number of troops.

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.

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 favoured 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 death of Osama bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the al-Qaeda network in the country, give the president an opportunity to make larger reductions this year.

Obama has previously said he favours a "significant" withdrawal beginning in July, his self-imposed deadline for starting to bring U.S. troops home. Aides, however, have never quantified that statement.