Published December 23, 2015
President Obama has decided on a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, not two years after he surged 30,000 troops into the country in a bid to arrest the advances of the insurgency.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday afternoon that Obama has made his final decision on the timetable for that withdrawal. The president is expected to outline his plan Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
The White House would not comment on what the initial drawdown phase might look like.
Sources outside the White House said a report claiming Obama will call for 10,000 personnel to be brought home by the end of 2011 is probably a "high-water mark," and that a smaller drawdown may be more likely this year. The bigger issue, they said, will be the pace of the drawdown after 2011. The sources said it appears Vice President Biden and other advisers want surge troops out by July 2012, while military commanders want them to stay until the fall of 2012 -- giving them two sustained fighting seasons.
The divide underscores how Obama, as he looks to fulfill his pledge to start drawing down troops in July, is caught between two broad factions in Congress, the military and his own administration.
Military leaders like outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates prefer a gradual withdrawal. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was opposed to setting a withdrawal timetable in the first place, told Fox News a "modest" withdrawal of support troops would be fine, but expressed concern the president might go too far in withdrawing combat forces from the surge.
"That would be drawing down people before the job is finished, particularly in eastern Afghanistan," McCain said Tuesday. "We have a lot of problems in Afghanistan, but the surge is working in southern Afghanistan and it can in the eastern part."
The senator was pushing back against what has become a bipartisan wing in Congress -- of war-weary Democrats and some Tea Party-aligned Republicans -- who want to see U.S. forces quickly withdrawn from what they see as an entrenched nation-building campaign.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggested he'd like to see the mission move toward a "counterterrorism" effort -- a mission framed more around strategic, isolated strikes than a broad troop presence.
The surge brought the U.S. troop presence to about 100,000. The president's decision-making process has focused not only on how many troops will come home in July, but also on a broader withdrawal blueprint designed to put the U.S. on a path toward giving Afghans control of their security by 2014.
Obama was given a range of options for the withdrawal last week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus has been tapped to lead the CIA, while CIA Director Leon Panetta is expected to face a vote in the Senate Tuesday on his nomination to be the next defense secretary.
In Afghanistan, military commanders want to keep as many of those forces in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the fragile security gains in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda training ground for the Sept. 11 attacks. There are also concerns about pulling out a substantial number of U.S. forces as the heightened summer fighting season gets under way.
But other advisers are backing a more significant withdrawal that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following months. That camp believes the slow yet steady security gains in Afghanistan, combined with the death of Usama bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the Al Qaeda network in the country, give the president an opportunity to make larger reductions this year.
There is also growing political pressure on Capitol Hill for a more significant withdrawal. Twenty-seven senators, Democrats as well as Republicans, sent Obama a letter last week pressing for a shift in Afghanistan strategy and major troop cuts.
"Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops," the senators wrote. "The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits."
After the announcement Wednesday, Obama on Thursday will visit troops at Fort Drum, the upstate New York military base that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Aides say Obama won't be overhauling the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as he starts the drawdown. Instead, they say he sees it as a critical part of the process to end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and turn security responsibility over to the Afghans.
On a trip to Afghanistan this month, Gates advocated for a comprehensive decision from the president.
"I think to make a decision on July in complete isolation from anything else has no strategic meaning," Gates said. "And so part of that has to be kind of, what's the book end? Where are we headed? What's the ramp look like?"
Gates is retiring from the Pentagon June 30.
Fox News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.