Under strong pressure to plot a clearer path towards ending the war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama will today unveil his plans for a drawdown of troops, with the likely goal of bringing as many as 30,000 American soldiers home by the end of next year.
Mr Obama is due to spell out his plans at a press conference tonight. Tomorrow he will travel to the Fort Drum army base in upstate New York which has deployed large numbers to the war. As of now, the US component of the Nato force in Afghanistan numbers almost 100,000 soldiers.
Mr Obama is navigating between different factions both in the military and on Capitol Hill. While the clamour for a lessening of America's commitment to the conflict has been gaining in volume, there are still concerns that pulling out forces now would endanger the fragile progress that has been made against the Taliban insurgency and al-Qa'ida in the country.
That progress, coupled with the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan, has nonetheless handed Mr Obama a useful narrative to justify the withdrawals. While several media sources predicted he would call for a phased withdrawal of 30,000 men by the end of next year – equivalent to the troop surge he ordered at the end of 2009 – White House officials cautioned that he was still pondering the details.
"When the President makes a decision, we'll then announce it," one source said. "The reporting today is all over the map, and we're not playing whack-a-mole with the various scenarios."
Last night Mr Obama met Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who retires later this month, to finalise details of his withdrawal strategy. By the end of the year, "we will be transitioning in Afghanistan to turn over more and more security to the Afghan people," Mr Obama said at a fundraiser this week.
Before the meeting, Mr Gates, who has favoured a slow withdrawal of troops, acknowledged that military calculations are only part of the broader political equation for the President.
"It goes without saying that there are a lot of reservations in the Congress about the war in Afghanistan and our level of commitment. There are concerns among the American people who are tired of a decade of war," he told reporters.
While a number at or around 30,000 would help bolster the President's claim ahead of elections next year that he is sticking to a schedule that would see a complete withdrawal from the decade-long conflict by the end of 2014, it could be executed in a fashion to cushion the impact on military operations. Sources predicted that between 5,000 and 10,000 would be likely to come out before the end of this year, but many of those would be engineers and other supporting troops rather than fighting soldiers.
Among those uncertain about any significant reduction in troop numbers is Senator John McCain who was among those who lobbied for the surge 18 months ago. "That would be drawing down people before the job is finished, particularly in eastern Afghanistan," he noted yesterday.
"We have a lot of problems in Afghanistan, but the surge is working in southern Afghanistan and it can in the eastern part."
Factors playing against a more dramatic drawdown include the continuing concern in Washington about events in Pakistan. Relations with Islamabad remain as strained as ever after the killing of Bin Laden.
But even with those considerations, Mr Obama knows the war is increasingly unpopular, including with the left wing of his own party and with some Republicans. Weariness with the conflict is tied with frustrations over its enormous cost at a time when Washington is trying to wrestle down the budget deficit.Reuse content