President Obama huddled with top national-security advisers on Monday to discuss the White House’s Afghanistan strategy, but he has yet to make a decision on just how many troops he’ll call home when a long-planned reduction of troops begins next month.
Today’s two-hour meeting in the Situation Room kicked off an intense week of reflection on Afghanistan policy and comes as Obama faces increasing pressure from Congress—as well as some members of his administration—to withdraw a significant number of American forces. While the president and his advisers discussed the progress that’s been made on the ground since last month’s killing of Osama bin Laden, there was no discussion about the size of next month’s scheduled drawdown of troops, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“It will be a real drawdown but it will depend on conditions on the ground,” Carney said.
Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan were among those who attended today’s meeting, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is scheduled to retire at the end of this month. Gates joined the briefing via secure video conference from Afghanistan. Carney said that the president would wait to hear recommendations from Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, before deciding on the size of the cutback. Over the weekend, Gates argued for a modest approach and suggested that he’d prefer to see more support troops and few combat troops removed in the initial cuts. “If it were up to me I’d leave the shooters until last,” Gates said.
The president had set July as a deadline to begin withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, a milestone he set when he agreed late in 2009 to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to try to turn the tide of the war.
Obama will sit down with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, and the leaders’ conversation is expected to weigh heavily on operations in Afghanistan, where Germany had deployed troops in the northern province of Kunduz. On Wednesday, Obama will hold a video conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss the drawdown, and Obama's pick to be his next ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing. Crocker will undoubtedly be pressed by senators on how quickly he thinks the U.S. military can depart Afghanistan.
Obama’s liberal base is pushing hard for a significant troop reduction. Earlier this month, House opponents were narrowly defeated, 204-215, in passing an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that called on Obama to speed up the withdrawal. Lawmakers have increasingly questioned the hefty price tag of the war that is running $120 billion per year. It’s an issue that the White House is sensitive to. Earlier this month, the National Security Council rejected a Pentagon plan to reject 73,000 Afghan security forces as too costly. And some members of the president's national-security team have reportedly argued for large cuts.
Increasingly, the conversation in Washington, particularly among members of Congress, about Afghanistan is marked by a sense of exasperation, said Ronald Neumann, who served as ambassador to Kabul from 2005 to 2007.
“I think the bin Laden death makes it easier for people to say about Afghanistan: ‘Okay, we’ve done that. Now, let’s quit,' " Neumann said.
Carney said the president is cognizant of the costs of the war, but it won’t be his primary consideration when making his decision on the size of the upcoming troop cuts.
“In the broader sense, we have limited resources and we have to make decisions about our priorities,” Carney said. “Obviously, every decision is made with a mind towards cost, but this is about U.S. national-security interests primarily.”
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