US Mood Shifts on Afghanistan


US President Barack Obama will order the withdrawal of at least 15,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the start of a steady drawdown of US forces before handing security over to the Afghan army and police, according to several White House and military officials and analysts in Washington.

Like his decision in December, 2009, to add 30,000 troops while pledging to start a withdrawal in July, 2011, Obama’s decision splits the difference between his generals, who prefer a slower pullout, and increasingly vocal opponents of the war. While those opponents are concentrated among the president’s own base in the Democratic Party and among independents, a growing number of Republicans – including several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 – have also begun to call for a stepped-up withdrawal.

But it’s unclear if Obama’s decision to reduce the US commitment by 15,000 troops in 2011 will be enough to placate his restive base, especially among hard-core, liberal Democratic voters who the president needs to turn out in large numbers next year. Polls show that the American people have turned strongly against the war. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, conducted before the death of Osama bin Laden,  revealed that by a margin of 64 to 31 percent, Americans no longer believe that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. By a margin of 73-21 percent, Americans favour a substantial withdrawal of US troops in July.Driving public opinion is a combination of sheer war-weariness after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the belief that with bin Laden’s death the United States has accomplished its chief goal in going to war in the first place, and concerns about the staggering, $120 billion cost of the war this year.

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Last week, at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Maj. Gen. Frederick Hodges provided a glimpse of the administration’s current thinking about the war. ‘Sometime next week, President Obama will announce the beginning of the drawdown of the “West Point surge,” and Gen. Petraeus is back in Washington working with Defence Secretary Gates and (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Adm. Michael Mullen, and over the next few days they will meet with the president to discuss what the drawdown slope should be,’ he said. ‘Some in Washington have called for a withdrawal of 15,000 US troops by the end of 2011, while Secretary Gates has said the number should be more modest. I suspect the final number will be somewhere in that ballpark. Everyone is in agreement that we don’t want to put the gains of the past year-and-a-half at risk.’ Recently, in an interview, Gen. Douglas Lute, the president’s chief adviser on Afghanistan, said that it’s likely that the full complement of the surge, about 30,000 troops, will be withdrawn by 2012.

If that’s the president’s decision, he’s gambling that it’s enough to calm the growing antiwar mood in the country. Across the board, members of Congress from both parties have started to speak out more forcefully against the war. This week, a bipartisan group of 27 senators wrote to Obama in support of a plan to inaugurate a complete US pullout. ‘Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops,’ the senators wrote. ‘The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits. It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan.’ Senior senators, such as Michigan’s Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have described the war as unsustainable.

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