By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 22, 2011 – Thanks to the tremendous progress U.S., coalition and Afghan troops have made, the United States will draw down the number of troops in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and 33,000 by the end of summer 2012, President Barack Obama said here tonight.
“The tide of war is receding,” the president said during an address to the nation from the White House. “Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way.”
In a statement released by the Pentagon following the presiden'ts announcement, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the president’s decision capitalizes on the security successes.
“Over the past 18 months our troops have made tremendous progress degrading the capability of the Taliban while enhancing the Afghan security forces,” Gates said. “It is critical that we continue to aggressively prosecute that strategy. I support the President’s decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”
When completed in September 2012, the drawdown will remove the last of the plus-up of forces in Afghanistan that Obama ordered in December 2009 during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
In that same speech, the president announced the new Afghan strategy, which was to focus on al-Qaida, reverse the Taliban’s momentum and to train Afghan security forces. He also announced that the drawdown would begin in July 2011.
Obama said his announcement tonight is proof that the strategy is working. “Thanks to our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals,” he said. When the first stage of the drawdown is complete in September 2012, the surge will be over.
U.S. troops will continue to drawdown as Afghan security forces take the lead for protecting their own country. As this continues, the U.S. mission will switch from combat to support.
“By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security,” Obama said.
The United States ended its combat role in Iraq last year and there are now about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq providing training and support to Iraqi security forces. The reduction of 33,000 troops by the end of summer 2012 will mean about 65,000 Americans in Afghanistan.
“Even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance,” Obama said. “These long wars will come to a responsible end.”
Obama said the past 10 years have been difficult for America. “We have learned anew the profound cost of war -- a cost that has been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan – men and women who will not live to enjoy the freedom that they defended,” he said. “Thousands more have been wounded. Some have lost limbs on the field of battle, and others still battle the demons that have followed them home.”
The president pledged that America will honor the sacrifices of so many and keep the sacred trust to provide the families of the fallen, those wounded and the veterans of the conflict “the care, and benefits, and opportunity that you deserve.”
In a background briefing before the speech, senior administration officials said the president’s decision had the full support of the national security team. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, presented the president with a range of options and the risks associated with each.
“I think there’s a broad understanding among the national security team that there’s an imperative to both consolidate the gains that have been made and continue our efforts to train Afghan security forces and partner with them in going after the Taliban, while also being very serious about the process of transition and the drawdown of our forces,” the official said.
The drawdown begins from a position of strength, Obama said. Al-Qaida and its Taliban allies are under tremendous pressure. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and more than half of al-Qaida’s leadership has been killed or captured.
“In Afghanistan, we’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds,” the president said. “Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people.”
Everything is not rosy, the president said, and the United States remains committed to preserving the gains made and expanding on them. “We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement,” he said. “So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” Any reconciliation will be done with Afghans in the lead.
“The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al-Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies,” the president said.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace," Obama said. "What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures – one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”
The president also addressed the terrorist threat that resides in Pakistan. “No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region,” he said.
The United States will continue to work with Pakistani leaders to go after terrorists. “We will insist that it keep its commitments,” he said. “For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.”
The president stressed that America’s strength overseas is anchored by prosperity and opportunity at home. “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” he said. “Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means.”
He said the nation needs to rebuild its infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. “Most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war,” he said. “For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach.
“America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” he said.