Obama to Announce Plans for Afghan Surge Pullout

Washington – President Obama plans to announce his decision on the scale and pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in a speech on Wednesday evening, an administration official said Monday.

As he closes in on a decision, another official said, Mr. Obama is considering options that range from a Pentagon-backed proposal to pull out only 5,000 troops this year to an aggressive plan to withdraw within 12 months all 30,000 troops the United States deployed to Afghanistan as part of the surge in December 2009.

Under another option, a third official said, Mr. Obama would announce a final date for the withdrawal of all the surge forces sometime in 2012, but leave the timetable for incremental reductions up to commanders in the field — much as he did in drawing down troops after the surge in Iraq.

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said the president had not yet “finalized” his decision. But the planning for a rollout of the announcement was well under way, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton scheduled to testify Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House said Mr. Obama would visit the Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York on Thursday. Fort Drum is home to the 10th Mountain Division, which has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

Administration officials said Mr. Obama would most likely pull out the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. What is still not known is how soon and how fast, though as the administration’s deliberations wind down, the outlines of the main proposals are becoming clearer.

Some senior White House officials advocate a plan under which 15,000 troops would return by the end of this year and the other 15,000 by the end of 2012, said an official who was briefed on the deliberations. Backers of this timetable include retired Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s senior adviser on Afghanistan.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long pushed for the United States to curtail its military engagement in Afghanistan, favors a plan under which all 30,000 troops would be pulled out within 12 months, said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that the initial withdrawal should be modest, and that substantial combat forces should remain into next year’s fighting season so as not to risk successes earned through the surge.

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In keeping with that concept, according to Pentagon and military officials, would be an initial reduction this year of about 5,000 troops — the size of a brigade — followed by 5,000 over the winter, when fighting recedes. The final 20,000 troops could remain into the next autumn, through the 2012 fighting season.

The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, met with Mr. Obama last Thursday and discussed a number of options with him, Mr. Carney said. But the precise options General Petraeus presented to Mr. Obama remain known to only a small group of senior officials.

Among the most intriguing proposals, an official said, is one advanced by officials at the State Department, under which Mr. Obama would announce no specific numbers of troops to be withdrawn. Instead, he would pledge to withdraw the surge force by a certain date, and leave the details to his commanders.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top commander in Iraq, oversaw the force reduction there under those terms. General Odierno, whom Mr. Obama recently nominated to be the chief of staff of the Army, has voiced reservations in recent days about making significant troop reductions in Afghanistan this year, an official said.

Another official said it was “highly likely” that the president would announce a plan with no initial numbers, though this person cautioned that Mr. Obama was keeping his cards very close to his chest.

If Mr. Obama decides to withdraw troops but leave as much of the combat force as possible in place, then among the first several thousand troops sent home could be support and service personnel. Among them would be logisticians and engineers, whose job is done after building barracks, runways and dining halls for the surge forces.

Even after all 30,000 troops are withdrawn, roughly 68,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan, twice the number as when Mr. Obama assumed office.

Senior administration officials said last week that they had made striking gains against Al Qaeda’s terrorist network in Pakistan, which would provide a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops. But Mr. Gates, who is leaving his job at the end of the month, has made a robust public case for a cautious path.

“Whatever decision he makes,” Mr. Gates said Sunday on CNN, “we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan.” In an acknowledgment that Mr. Obama is under pressure to begin a significant withdrawal, as he promised he would when he announced the surge in 2009, Mr. Gates said, “The drawdown must be politically credible here at home.”

With the economy still fragile and the unemployment rate above 9 percent, Mr. Obama is being pressured by members of his own party to turn American resources away from the Afghanistan war — where the United States spent $120 billion last year — and toward economic programs at home.

Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.