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Afghans watch a TV broadcast of US President Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union speech, in Kabul, yesterday.
KABUL: The Afghan government yesterday welcomed President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US will withdraw 34,000 troops from the country over the next year.
“We welcome this,” defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. “We will take all security responsibilities by the end of 2013. Our troops will replace them.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long supported the scheduled withdrawal of US and Nato troops by the end of 2014, saying Afghan forces are capable of taking responsibility for the fight against Taliban insurgents.
Obama, who made the troop withdrawal announcement during his State of the Union address, said the drawdown would continue and “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over”.
The Taliban dismissed the troop pull-out as insufficient. “The problem is not going to be solved with reducing or increasing the number of troops,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
“As long as the invading forces remain in Afghanistan, the jihad (holy war) continues. The problem is solved with the complete withdrawal of the invading forces and returning Afghanistan back to Afghans.”
Obama’s move effectively halves the size of the 66,000-strong US force, as Nato troops prepare to hand over control for security operations to some 352,000 Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
Nato, which has about 37,000 troops, will also withdraw in stages before the end of 2014.
In his address on Tuesday, Obama unveiled plans to scale back US forces from 66,000 to 32,000 in 12 months, as part of a long-standing goal by Washington and its allies to pull out by the end of 2014.
The move reflects the administration’s commitment to turn the page on the conflict, after concluding that a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign was not worth pursuing amid stalemate on the battlefield and more than a decade of troop casualties, analysts said.
“The administration and the president have been very clear over the last 18 months or more that the drawdown would continue at a steady pace. It just represents a continuation of the administration’s plan,” said David Barno, a retired general who commanded US troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
Although most Americans have grown weary of the war, some Republican lawmakers worry the withdrawal pace is too fast and will play into the hands of Taliban insurgents American troops have been fighting since 2001.
But officials say US and Nato forces need to start handing more responsibility to Afghan government forces and that senior officers on the ground will have flexibility to adjust the drawdown as needed.
“The commanders will have discretion on the pace” of the withdrawal, a senior defence official said. And the “focus will be keeping as many forces in play until after the fighting season” ends in the fall, said the official.
For US troops, the “primary mission is to support the Afghan forces to make them effective in the fighting against the Taliban, not to do the job for them,” said Barno, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which has a close relationship with the Obama administration.
While Barno believes Afghan forces are “far more capable” than Western experts give them credit for, some in and outside the Pentagon say hard-won progress against the Taliban could unravel because of the troop withdrawal schedule.
“It’s a big number of troops to withdraw in a short amount of time,” said Thomas Donnelly of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Instead of waging war against the Taliban, the priority inevitably will shift to managing a large-scale withdrawal, he said.
“Just because of the size of the drawdown and the complexity of operations in Afghanistan, a lot of the command is going to be focused on the drawdown.”
Obama has yet to say how many troops he wants to keep in Afghanistan after the Nato withdrawal, but officials have indicated the White House wants a smaller presence than initially favoured by the Pentagon.
Top generals at one point proposed 15,000 to 20,000 boots on the ground, but officials say the White House favours a light footprint of several thousand.
As US diplomats negotiate an agreement with Kabul for a post-2014 mission, the administration has yet to articulate what the US commitment to Afghanistan will be in the future, and how many billions the US needs to spend to keep the Kabul government afloat.
“Obama needs to lay out a clear strategy for Afghanistan for the months and years ahead,” Michael O’Hanlon of The Brookings Institution wrote on the Politico news website.
With the war at a stalemate, the crucial question is not how many US troops stay in Afghanistan, but how long Congress will be willing to bankroll the Afghan army and police to keep insurgents at bay, said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
“The issue is whether the US Congress is going to keep funding the Afghan National Security Forces to keep them in the field and is there any way to end the war satisfactorily before the Congress cuts off the money,” he said. afp