Obama: Time to withdraw troops from Afghanistan; ‘We stand not for empire’

Spc. Gavin Fruge, 22, of Crowley, La., left, watches a rebroadcast of President Barack Obama's speech on proposed troop withdrawal with fellow soldiers at Kandahar Airfield Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)Spc. Gavin Fruge, 22, of Crowley, La., left, watches a rebroadcast of President Barack Obama’s speech on proposed troop withdrawal with fellow soldiers at Kandahar Airfield Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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President Obama said Wednesday night that he will withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next summer — in time for the presidential election campaign season and against the advice of top military advisers.

“We are meeting our goals,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised address from the White House. “Our mission will change from combat to support.”

Mr. Obama is ordering about 5,000 troops to pull out beginning next month and another 5,000 by the end of this year. The remainder of the 33,000-troop “surge” that the president ordered in December 2009 will be brought home before September 2012.

The president also laid out a new philosophy for the nation’s role as the world’s unrivaled military power, after costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

“This decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world,” Mr. Obama said. “When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.”

Mr. Obama argued for a new doctrine that gives more deference to the heavy cost of defending the United States against global Islamist extremism in an era of huge budget deficits.

“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” said Mr. Obama, who pushed through an $821 billion economic recovery plan in 2009. “Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

White House officials have denied that political considerations affected the president’s decision, but Mr. Obama also used his nationally televised address to announce two economic plums for his home base: a NATO summit and the next Group of Eight conference in Chicago, both in May 2012.

Mr. Obama is facing enormous hurdles as he approaches his re-election campaign, including a jobless rate of 9.1 percent. His job-approval rating this week plummeted to 43 percent in one poll.

A Pew Research poll released Tuesday showed 56 percent of those surveyed want U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible, up from 40 percent one year ago. And some Republican presidential candidates are calling for an even swifter withdrawal of troops.

Mr. Obama had set a timetable of July 2011 for beginning to withdraw troops if conditions on the ground warranted it. The president said the military surge had achieved the goals of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum and starting to train Afghan security forces to take control of their country.

“We believe the president is making this decision from a position of success and strength,” said a senior administration official.

But the pace of troop withdrawal is much more rapid than recommended by retiring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who favors a pullout of only a few thousand troops this year. Mr. Gates and many senior military brass are concerned that too rapid a withdrawal will threaten the loss of security gains achieved in the past 18 months.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the president’s plan “may have the consequences of undermining a very successful strategy.”

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