WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's withdrawal plan for Afghanistan marks the beginning of the end of a troop-intensive approach to countering a Taliban insurgency that until recent months had fought the U.S. and its NATO allies to a standstill.
As the war grinds on, the Obama administration will shift the U.S. military's focus more toward targeting terrorist leaders, while giving Afghans more of the lead in fighting — and eventually reconciling with — the Taliban.
What remains in doubt is the endgame: finding a political solution to the conflict.
Are the Taliban under enough military pressure to compel them to enter serious peace talks with Kabul? Robert Gates, the soon-to-retire defense secretary, thinks not — at least not before the end of this year. But recognizing that Afghans and Americans alike are weary of war, Gates concedes that the current troop-intensive U.S. approach is not sustainable.
So the U.S. troop withdrawal will accelerate next year, with all 30,000 of the "surge" troops that Obama ordered to Afghanistan expected to be gone by September 2012, leaving about 68,000 U.S. troops and a few tens of thousands from other coalition countries. As the force shrinks, so will the scope and ambition of the U.S.-led military campaign.
In his speech to the nation, Obama made no mention of defeating the Taliban. Instead he focused on al-Qaida, which is not primarily in Afghanistan.
"What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government," he said, adding that the goal is not to make Afghanistan "a perfect place."
"We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely," he said.
The shift is a setback for the war's current commander, Gen. David Petraeus, the author of the military's guidebook for counterinsurgency. A year ago, Petraeus and the likeminded commander he replaced, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, were talking about a "fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign" in Afghanistan as the key to turning around a stalemated war.
Petraeus is now slated to retire from the Army and become CIA director, and the next Afghanistan commander, Gen. John Allen, will be trimming the U.S. sails.
In his speech, Obama said the U.S. intends to remain committed to Afghanistan's future — not least because it is in U.S. interests to prevent the country from reverting to a haven for al-Qaida. But by the end of 2014, all U.S. and foreign combat forces would be out under a plan announced in Lisbon, Portugal, last November and publicly endorsed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The speech heralds a historic turning point in the war, but not the first since Obama took office in January 2009. That spring he fired his top commander in Kabul, Army Gen. David McKiernan, in favor of McChrystal and the "a fundamentally new approach" he advocated.
In an assessment for Gates, McChrystal wrote that the war could be lost unless Obama was willing to redefine the fight and send thousands more U.S. troops.
The president accepted the core of that advice, which included McChrystal's view that the central objective must be to protect the Afghan population, not just from Taliban violence and intimidation but also from "corruption and coercion."
Obama balked at McChrystal's request for some 40,000 additional forces, however, and settled on roughly 30,000.
The phased drawdown of American troops beginning this summer will not signal an immediate abandonment of the "protect-the-people-and-bolster-their-government" approach. But it does suggest that with the 2012 presidential election looming, Obama is ready to begin scaling back his war goals.
"From the standpoint of the American psyche, I think this will be welcomed," said Kiron K. Skinner, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics and a former adviser to the Pentagon. She said the White House also calculates that it will help Obama as he heads into a re-election fight.
One factor that Obama considered in coming to his decision on troop withdrawals is the risk that starting a U.S. departure now would trigger a rush to the exits by Britain, Germany and other NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan. The allies were long skeptical of the wisdom of a troop-heavy approach to the conflict.
Also weighing on Obama is an increasingly impatient Congress. Many lawmakers share the view of Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who says the time has come to scale back the war effort.
"The cost of our efforts in Afghanistan — in terms of money and lives — is a significant strain on our nation and we must begin to responsibly reduce our commitments," Smith said before the president's address.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Robert Burns has covered military and national security issues for The Associated Press since 1990. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP