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President Barack Obama’s decision to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan by 33,000 by September 2012 drew mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, particularly from top Republicans who appeared deeply divided over the proposal.
In an address to the nation Wednesday, Obama said 10,000 troops would return home this year, with an additional 23,000 departing Afghanistan by next summer, thanks to advances in the war over the past two years. An administration official said the 33,000 troops would be out by the end of September 2012.
“Thanks to our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. ... 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,” Obama said. “By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
Obama also acknowledged the financial effect of the war on the United States and used it as an argument for the transition. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he said.
On one hand, Obama’s announcement drew a strong rebuke from key Republican hawks. When asked whether he was pleased with Obama’s speech, Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN: “Not particularly. I liked the idea that we might have an enduring relationship beyond 2014.”
The South Carolina Republican argued that Obama has ignored the more modest troop reduction proposed by Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in favor of Vice President Joseph Biden’s desire for steeper reductions.
“Here’s what I think the story is: Petraeus loses, Biden wins,” Graham said.
Immediate reductions would hurt the United States’ ability to maintain progress in Afghanistan, he said, adding that he believes the White House is moving away from its counterinsurgency strategy to a counterterrorism focus too soon.
Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain also criticized the reductions.
“I am concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced tonight poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made,” the Arizona Republican said in a statement. “This is not the ‘modest’ withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated.”
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said before the speech that he was “disappointed that the president seems to be deciding troop levels not based on conditions on the ground, but [on] previous political commitments.”
But Speaker John Boehner hailed the drawdown levels in a statement.
“I am pleased the President recognizes that success in Afghanistan is paramount. Continuing to degrade al Qaeda’s capabilities in Afghanistan and the surrounding region must take priority over any calendar dates. It’s important that we retain the flexibility necessary to reconsider troop levels and respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant,” the Ohio Republican said.
“It is my hope that the President will continue to listen to our commanders on the ground as we move forward,” he added. “Congress will hold the Administration accountable for ensuring that the pace and scope of the drawdown does not undermine the progress we’ve made thus far.”
But in a reflection of the depth of the division within the GOP, which has long been Obama’s chief source of support in his handling of the war, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar argued before the speech that the reductions would not be enough.
The Indiana Republican was once one of Obama’s closest Senate GOP allies on foreign policy. But he argued Wednesday that in addition to deep cuts in troop levels, “the president should put forward a plan that includes a more narrow definition of success in Afghanistan based on U.S. vital interests and a sober analysis of what is possible to achieve,” including a greater emphasis on counterterrorism and abandoning nation-building efforts.
Top Democrats were also divided. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) called the troop reductions a positive step, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) expressed disappointment that troops wouldn’t be exiting faster.
“The President’s plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is a critical step in the right direction,” Reid said in a statement. “I commend the many brave members of our Armed Forces who have served there and thank them for their sacrifice.”
Pelosi contended that the sooner the war ends, the sooner the United States can focus more on domestic matters. “It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out — and we will continue to press for a better outcome,” she said in a statement.