New Delhi: US President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. He also announced that 33,000 troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2012. Thus, fulfilling the commitment he made in 2009 as he announced the surge.
This comes as outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon have been pushing for additional time to roll back Taliban gains in the country before starting any significant withdrawal. Gates, along with Afghan war commander General David Petraeus, had pushed for an initial draw-down of just 3,000 to 5,000 troops this year.
Troops will be withdrawn at a steady pace after that, Obama said, as the United States, struggling to repair its global image and fix its weak domestic economy, looks to end a decade of military ventures prompted by the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"Huge challenges remain. This is the beginning - but not the end of our effort to wind down this war," Obama said. "America, it is time to focus on nation building at home."
US and NATO troops have been in are engaged in establishing stability in Afghanistan for the past 10 years. But Obama cited the costs of war and said that the US is coming from a position of strength, having taken out Osama Bin Laden.
US troop withdrawal is underway in Iraq - 100,000 troops are already back home.
"After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. 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," he said.
The US President said America was starting the draw-down from a position of strength, asserting that al Qaeda was under 'more pressure' than at any time since 9/11.
"Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda's leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known," he said.
Nearly 10 years after the 9/111 attacks that triggered the war, US and NATO forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the insurgent Taliban. The Afghan government remains weak and notoriously corrupt and billions of dollars in foreign aid efforts have yielded meagre results.
Obama's announcement comes the week after General David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, presented several options for drawing down some of the 100,000 US soldiers there starting in July.
But Obama's move was a more aggressive approach that went beyond the options offered by Petraeus.
The US President's decision appears to reflect the competing pressures he faces as he seeks to rein in government spending and halt American casualties without endangering the gains his commanders say they have made across southern Afghanistan.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he supported Obama's decision, but the plan is unlikely to sit well with the Pentagon's top brass who worry insurgents could regain lost territory and that fighting along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan will intensify.
Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the Pentagon would have favoured a much smaller initial withdrawal.
"But the fact is that the conditions on the ground don't merit any sort of withdrawal - it's not time to be pulling out a substantive amount of troops," he said. "There's a lot that has to be done in the east and you're not out of the woods in the south yet."
Yet Obama also faces mounting demands from some quarters of the US Congress, impatient with a war that now costs more than $ 110 billion a year, for a larger initial draw-down.
Even after the withdrawal of the 33,00 US troops, about 70,000 will remain in Afghanistan by the autumn of 2012, more than were there when Obama took office.
With Additional Inputs from Agencies