Obama's Afghanistan plan criticised
Washington - Congressional Democrats are leading the criticism of President Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, arguing that his timeline for bringing 33 000 US troops home by next summer isn't fast enough.
An initial drawdown of 10 000 troops is expected to take place in two phases, with 5 000 troops coming home this summer and 5 000 more by the end of the year. An additional 20 000-plus are to follow by September 2012.
Democrats said that wasn't adequate.
"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of US forces would happen sooner than the president laid out - and we will continue to press for a better outcome," said Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, leading a chorus of disgruntled Democrats who took the president to task, albeit politely.
From across the aisle, the Republican response to Obama's timeline for withdrawing tens of thousands of troops was measured. Republican House Speaker John Boehner warned Obama not to sacrifice the gains the US has made in Afghanistan, while Republican Senator John McCain said the drawdown was too rash.
"This is not the 'modest' withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated," McCain said in a statement following Obama's prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday night.
Potential Republican presidential candidates also were quick to weigh in with criticism of Obama's plan.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney accused Obama of proposing an "arbitrary timetable" and said the decision on withdrawing troops "should not be based on politics or economics".
However, Jon Huntsman, Obama's former ambassador to China, said the approach in Afghanistan should be focused on counterterrorism, "which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight".
As Obama works to sell his withdrawal plan, on Thursday he was to visit Fort Drum, the upstate New York Army post that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan.
Obama ordered more than 30 000 "surge" forces to Afghanistan in 2009 in order to rescue a flailing effort, and promised to start bringing them home in July of this year. In his speech on Wednesday night, he declared: "The tide of war is receding."
Even after the surge forces leave Afghanistan, 70 000 US troops will remain in an unstable country, fighting in a war bound to see more Americans killed. Obama said they will leave at a steady pace, but the US combat mission is not expected to end until December 2014 - and even then, a sizable and enduring contingent may remain in a different role.
Obama's announcement from the White House came in a perilous political environment. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and are far more concerned about the teetering economic recovery at home.
At least 1 500 members of the US military have died and 12 000 have been wounded since the war began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440bn and is on the rise, jumping to $120bn a year. Those costs have risen in importance as a divided US government struggles to contain its soaring debt.
Conceding the economic strain of waging war at a time of rising debt and fiscal constraint, Obama said it was time for America "to focus on nation-building here at home". The president's chances for re-election rest largely on his ability to show faster job growth in a time of deepening economic pessimism.
The withdrawal is supported by the bold bottom-line claims of his security team: Afghanistan, training ground for the September 11 2001, attacks on the US, no longer is a launching pad for exporting terrorism and hasn't been for years.
But that also could fuel arguments for even greater withdrawals by voters wondering what the point of the war is after all these years, especially since the face of the enemy - al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - was killed by American forces last month during a US raid in Pakistan.
Yet the White House insists the US must maintain a strong fighting force in Afghanistan for now to keep the country from slipping back into a terrorist haven.
Obama said on Wednesday that materials recovered during the raid to get bin Laden showed that al-Qaeda was under deep strain. He said bin Laden himself expressed concern that his organisation would be unable to effectively replace senior leaders that had been killed.
The president declared, "We have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done."
Even after the troops come home, the war will remain expanded on Obama's watch. He approved 21 000 additional troops for Afghanistan shortly after taking office in 2009, bringing the total number to 68 000. That means he is likely to face re-election with more troops in Afghanistan than when he took office, although he has also dramatically reduced the US military presence in Iraq.
The president spoke for just under 15 minutes from the East Room. It was a strategic moment for him to try to explain a turning point in the war effort without elevating it to a major Oval Office address - more of a stay-the-course case of progress and resilience.
"Of course, huge challenges remain," the president said. "This is the beginning - but not the end - of our effort to wind down this war."
Military commanders favoured a plan that would allow them to keep as many of the 30 000 surge troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, ideally through the end of 2012. That timeline would have given them greater troop strength through two crucial fighting seasons.
Obama overruled them.