Obama Opts for Faster Afghan Pullout

Washington – President Obama plans to announce Wednesday evening that he will order the withdrawal of 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan this year, and another 20,000 troops, the remainder of the 2009 “surge,” by the end of next summer, according to administration officials and diplomats briefed on the decision. These troop reductions are both deeper and faster than the recommendations made by Mr. Obama’s military commanders, and they reflect mounting political and economic pressures at home, as the president faces relentless budget pressures and an increasingly restive Congress and American public.

The president is scheduled to speak about the Afghanistan war from the White House at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Mr. Obama’s decision is a victory for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long argued for curtailing the American military engagement in Afghanistan. But it is a setback for his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who helped write the Army’s field book on counterinsurgency policy, and who is returning to Washington to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Two administration officials said General Petraeus did not endorse the decision, though both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is retiring, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reluctantly accepted it. General Petraeus had recommended limiting initial withdrawals and leaving in place as many combat forces for as long as possible, to hold on to fragile gains made in recent combat.

In announcing the withdrawals, which represent about 30 percent of current American troop strength in the country, Mr. Obama will fulfill a pledge he made in December 2009. At that time, he coupled the deployment of 30,000 additional troops with a promise to begin winding down America’s engagement by the middle of this year. Still, the speed and scope of this plan is striking.

It amounts to a broad rethinking of the military’s troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy that Mr. Obama adopted 18 months ago after a painstaking review. Officials have indicated that the administration now plans to place more emphasis on focused counterterrorism operations of the kind that killed Osama bin Laden — which the president is expected to cite as Exhibit A for a substantial American drawdown.

About 68,000 American troops would be left in Afghanistan after the withdrawals, roughly twice the number who were there when Mr. Obama took office.

Administration officials have said an intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan had crippled Al Qaeda’s original network in the region, leaving its leaders either dead or pinned down in the rugged region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Of 30 top Al Qaeda leaders indentified by American intelligence, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, the officials said.

But the withdrawal of the entire surge force by the end of next summer — before the fighting season ends in Afghanistan — would change the way the United States wages war in Afghanistan. Analysts said the administration may have concluded that it can no longer achieve its grandest ambitions for the nearly-decade-long military campaign in Afghanistan.

In 2009, speaking to an audience at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Mr. Obama laid out a broad range of goals that included defeating Al Qaeda and stopping the Taliban, but also giving Afghanistan the breathing space to build up its own security forces and a functioning government.

Even as the president eschewed the grand nation-building of the Bush administration, he authorized a “civilian surge” of diplomats and aid workers to help Afghans build local ministries and farmers to switch to healthier crops.

The decision also reflects the rapidly changing domestic political landscape. Mr. Obama faces a sagging economy, intense budget pressures and a war-weary Congress and public as he looks ahead to his reelection campaign.

Leading Republican hopefuls like Mitt Romney are demanding a swifter withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Democrats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere complain that the cost of the war — $120 billion this year alone — is siphoning money away from efforts to build roads and create jobs in the United States.

“From a fiscal standpoint, we’re spending too much money on Iraq and Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said. “There’s a belief from a fiscal standpoint that this is cannibalizing too much of our spending.”