President Obama’s upcoming announcement about how many troops he'll begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next month will vividly underscore how much the war debate has shifted, inside and outside Washington, since Obama announced the Afghan surge in December 2009.
Obama will unveil his troop withdrawal decision on Wednesday, bringing an end to weeks of fevered speculation about the course of the deeply unpopular Afghan war. The president will address the country at 8 that night from the White House. A senior Pentagon official said in an interview on Tuesday that he expects the president to endorse a “phased withdrawal” that would bring one combat brigade, or about 5,000 troops, home over the summer and a second to begin leaving by the end of the year. He said that Obama will also commit to bringing back the remaining 20,000 "surge" troops by the end of 2012, although the military expects the president to be deliberately vague about the timing of the final stages of the troop drawdown, as he was in Iraq.
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Whatever path he chooses, Obama will confront a political landscape that has shifted significantly since he stood before an audience of cadets at West Point 18 months ago and said he had decided that it was in America’s “vital national interest” to send 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to battle the resurgent Taliban and stamp out any remaining Qaida militants there or in neighboring Pakistan.
At the time, both the military and the nation’s intelligence community agreed that Afghanistan was rapidly deteriorating and that the U.S. and its allies stood a realistic chance of defeat unless they rapidly changed course there. There were debates about what type of approach to put in place and precisely how many additional troops to deploy, but key policymakers from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department were in broad agreement that the U.S. needed to adopt a new strategy and dispatch considerable new resources to the country.
When Obama opted to deploy 30,000 new troops to the country in December 2009 as part of a shift to a broad counterinsurgency approach, he faced only minimal congressional opposition. Republicans in both the House and the Senate vocally endorsed the surge, while congressional Democrats—even as they made no secret of their discomfort with Obama’s escalation of the war—offered only minimal public criticism and made no real attempt to block the troop deployments.
This time around, the intelligence community and the military have completely different assessments of the state of the war and the impact of the surge. Senior military officials like Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, argue that the additional troops have helped rout the Taliban from their longtime strongholds in southern Afghanistan and speed the training of the Afghan security forces. Many in the intelligence community, by contrast, question the military’s relatively rosy assessments and believe that the U.S.-led offensives against the Taliban have done little to degrade the armed group’s willingness—or ability—to fight.
In March, for instance, Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers that the Taliban in southern Afghanistan had “shown resilience and still influences much of the population, particularly outside urban areas," despite the presence of tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces.
Burgess, echoing the private assessments of many CIA and DIA officials, said the military offensives against the Taliban had killed significant numbers of militants but resulted in “no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight.” Others in the intelligence community argue that the recent killing of Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden means tat the U.S. should reduce its costly military presence in Afghanistan and focus more narrowly on hunting down the terror group’s last living leaders.