Obama slides toward Afghan exit

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is gambling that his gradual military withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t prompt the tribal country to spin out of control in the next 12 months and will help him run as a jobs-and-growth candidate in 2012.

“America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama declared in his prime-time announcement from the White House.

“Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story,” he said in a speech that segued into a campaign-style pitch for the 2012 election.

There were 32,000 troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated in January 2008. He sent 20,000 troops there in early 2009, and announced an extra surge of 33,000 troops in December 2009.

In his speech, Obama said he would withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year, and another 33,000 by September 2012. Most of the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops will then be withdrawn by year end 2014, he said.

“We set clear objectives: to refocus on al Qaeda; reverse the Taliban’s momentum; and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country,” Obama said of the 2009 troop surge plan. “I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to drawdown our forces this July.”

In his speech, Obama lowered the goals for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and invited the Afghan government to negotiate a deal with the Taliban, the ultra-orthodox Islamic group that hosted al Qaeda organizers of the 9/11 mass-murder. (GOP presidential candidates react to Obama’s Afghan speech)

“Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution,” he said.

“The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies,” he declared in his speech.”

Obama’s retreat from Afghanistan before the Islamic Taliban is defeated is militarily risky, because it may embolden Taliban attackers and fracture the central’s government shaky coalition. If additional U.S. troops are killed, or the country is split by war in the fall before the 2012 election, Republicans will likely pin the blame on the president.

Already, many Afghans have begun maneuvering for advantage in a post-American Afghanistan. An alliance of groups from Northern Afghanistan — “the Coalition for Change and Hope” — has openly split with Karzai’s government and begun to seek alliances with Southern anti-Taliban tribal leaders.

“This spits and realignments are unsurprising, said Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research at the American Enterprise Institute, “Because many leaders and communities were killed or wrecked in the civil-war that followed the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. A civil-war can be avoided only if the U.S acts as a honest broker and strong backer in the politically diverse country.”

Even as Obama downgraded U.S. goals in Afghanistan, he took time to justify his limited intervention in Libya’s spasmodic civil war as a reasonable balance between two foreign-policy extremes. (Obama calls for 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by next summer)

“When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own,” he said, adding that the U.S. is “supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny.”

Obama ended his speech by pivoting to a campaign-style list of his domestic priorities intended to unite his activist base, allied business and advocacy coalitions, voter blocs and swing-voting independents.

His much-anticipated announcement was planned for the same day that two bad-news reports were expected to hit the media. In the morning, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the national debt would outgrow the nation’s annual income in 2021, and double again in another 15 years. The growth of health care spending contributes 80 percent of the problem, and the heavy debt will shrink the economy’s growth by 6 percent in 2025, and 18 percent by 2035, said the report.

That afternoon, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a bad-news economic message to the assembled TV cameras. “I believe slowdown is partly temporary and we’ll see greater growth going forward … [but because] we can’t explain the entire slowdown, growth in the near-term might be less than we anticipate.”

The Dow index fell by 80 points on Wednesday, further reducing hope of significantly reducing the nation’s unemployment rate of at least 9.1 percent before next year.

Left-leaning Democratic legislators and a widening slice of the Democratic base are urging withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, the left-of-center Center for American Progress has called for withdrawal of 60,000 troops by the end of 2012.

The successful killing in May of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden helps advocates who urge a troop-reduction make their case to the public. These advocates, who include Vice-President Joe Biden, say U.S. forces should be sharply reduced, and redirected away from counter-insurgency and nation-building, and towards a counter-terrorism strategy that would raid Al Qaeda hideouts whenever they are detected.

Republicans leaders are splitting over the Afghan campaign. National security hawks urged continued attacks on the Taliban in expectation that the Afghan government will gradually build an army that is cohesive enough to rule Afghanistan without much American help.

But other Republicans, including several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, say they support a faster pullout. Yet some of the candidates, such as Gov. Mitt Romney or Gov. Tim Pawlenty, say they would seek military advice, or not establish a withdrawal timeline that could spur Taliban attacks.