President Obama's announcement on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan reflected little of the heated debates between the White House and the military in crafting a plan.
The timeline to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012 capped a weeks-long internal dispute involving senior White House officials and military commanders like Gen. David Petraeus, the top officer in Kabul. As recently as last week, Obama was seriously considering a proposal to withdraw all of the surge troops by early spring of 2012, with 10,000 departing this year and the remainder leaving by next March, according to an official with direct knowledge of the discussions.
Petraeus, by contrast, argued that the remaining 23,000 surge troops should remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2012, the official said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates floated a compromise under which the surge troops would stay in Afghanistan until September 2012, ensuring that they would remain in the country through a second fighting season, according to two officials with knowledge of the debate. The Gates proposal won the support of Obama and most of his war Cabinet, with the notable exception of Petraeus, the officials said.
The troop decision comes amid growing congressional unease about the conflict. Last week, 27 senators—including powerful figures such as Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s majority whip, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s 2012 Senate campaign operation—released a letter calling on Obama to begin a major troop withdrawal this summer. The letter’s signatories ran the gamut from conservative Democrats such as Montana’s Max Baucus, to outspoken progressives such as Minnesota’s Al Franken, and to veteran lawmakers with safe seats such as Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow to vulnerable freshman such as Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.
In their letter, the senators didn’t specify how many troops should return home, but they stressed that the withdrawal should be “sizable and sustained” and include combat forces as well as logistical and support troops. The emphasis on combat personnel reflected the concern on Capitol Hill that Obama would bow to the Pentagon and order a minimal withdrawal composed mainly of troops who aren’t directly involved in the fight against the Taliban and its allies.
Republicans--who had long been almost universally hawkish about Afghanistan--are also beginning to turn against the war. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky signed onto last week’s letter, and 26 House Republicans backed a Democratic amendment last month that would have mandated a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan. The measure attracted 204 votes, not enough to pass but far more than the 162 it received last year when the House was still under Democratic control.
The shift has been particularly striking among the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who formally entered the presidential race on Tuesday, used a round of television appearances on Wednesday to hammer Obama not from the right but from the left.
"I think that we can probably be more aggressive" in withdrawing troops faster than Obama wants to,” Huntsman told NBC’s Today show.
In a later appearance on ABC's Good Morning America, Huntsman said that Obama's drawdown plans were "a little slow and a little cautious."
" I think there is room to draw down more," he told ABC.