President Obama on Wednesday will reveal how quickly he plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, an administration official said tonight. The White House had no further details.
Obama’s goals for the war remain roughly the same as they were in December 2009, when he told an audience of cadets and officers at West Point that he aimed to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaida's terrorist network by preventing a resurgence of the Taliban and by training Afghan security forces to fill the gap.
Several Obama advisers hoped success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan would allow the president to expedite the slope of troop withdrawals beginning in July.
(MAP: Where the Missions Are)
Obama, the administration official said, does not "disaggregate the CT and COIN debates in a reprise of the 2009 narrative. We see both parts as enabling each other, and in addition to seeing key counterterrorism successes we also see very important successes in terms of stopping the Taliban momentum and building up the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces."
Intelligence assessments of al-Qaida's network based on information collected at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan suggest that leaders of the terrorist group were increasingly frustrated that, because of U.S. Special Forces' disruptive activities and CIA drone strikes, operationalizing plots was becoming quite difficult. “We found a lot of evidence of stuff that was supposed to happen and never got to where it needed to go, and then lots of incoming messages wondering why things didn’t happen,” an official briefed on the intelligence said.
And U.S. officials say the intelligence shows a backlash against the newly appointed al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for being unable to develop a secure and independent courier network to execute attacks.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that 20 of 30 top leaders of al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been killed since Obama took office.
The upshot is that the capacity of al-Qaida has been significantly degraded, and even if the troop withdrawal pace is slow at first, an official said Obama will have to find some way to acknowledge this fact.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Sunday the “war weariness” among Americans, but he said that “the president's responsibility, and I have seen this in his predecessors, is to look out for the long-term national security interests of the United States. He has to have a longer view."
And the Taliban remains a problem. Although weakened, it remains a destructive force in many parts of Afghanistan. Discussions with dissident Taliban leaders about joining the Afghan government are still at a nascent stage. A too-rapid early withdrawal could give more aggressive Taliban elements the incentive to punish those engaged in diplomacy.
There are no indications that Obama plans a rapid course correction. His advisers think Americans will give the commander in chief the benefit of the doubt. Still, it will be useful during an election year to point to large numbers of troops coming home. Even Republicans like Mitt Romney, once a stalwart of the party’s hawkish wing, have indicated that they see the current war as one being fought for Afghanistan’s independence, which the U.S. should step away from.
There are also limits as to how quickly troops can be turned around. And administration officials said that it would be unwise to withdraw those troops training Afghan security forces in the middle of their terms.
Obama will announce his decision soon. Guidance about the timing of the announcement is expected later this week. The relative proportion of troops devoted to counterterrorism and to anti-weapons proliferation will probably increase as other combat troops are redeployed home.
There are about 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, along with just under 50,000 other NATO troops.
Yochi Dreazen contributed reporting for this article. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 20, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.