INGTON - US President Barack Obama Wednesday announced a drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan from next month, with a grim warning to Pakistan: Terrorist safe havens will not be tolerated.
We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments, Obama said in a nationally televised address Wednesday from the White House. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve, he added.
The president declared that the United States had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan, but US efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan.
No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region, he said.
President Obamas drawdown plan calls for a reduction by 10,000 of the more than 100,000 US troops currently in country by the end of this year. Roughly a brigade of troops, estimated at 5,000, will be withdrawn beginning next month. A second brigade of 5,000 troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan by the beginning of 2012.
An additional 23,000 US soldiers will be pulled out by the end of the summer of 2012. This will lower the number of troops in Afghanistan to 67,000, which is the same quantity present before the surge was deployed in accord with President Obamas announcement of a new strategy in a December 2009 speech. A steady reduction of US forces will continue through 2013 and 2014, until only a small residual force is left by the end of 2014.
Asserting that Afghanistan that served as a base for the 9/11 attacks no longer represented a terrorist threat to the United States, Obama declared that the tide of war is receding. And in a blunt recognition of domestic economic strains, he said: America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.
Commenting on the drawdown announcement, the New York Times observed:
Though the president could not say so directly, one of the constraints on Americas retreat from a hard and bloody decade is the recognition that, more than ever, the United States will be relying on Afghanistans help to deal with the threats emerging from Pakistan.
The essence of Obamas decision is to accelerate whats working - no matter how loudly the Pakistanis protest about drone strikes and violations of their sovereignty, the Times said citing a senior administration official.
The official, cited by the newspaper, made clear that the Obama administrations primary focus now was a much larger, and more dangerous, presence of insurgents remaining in Pakistan.
Obama noted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 6,000 American lives since the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in response to the Sept 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Tonight we take comfort in knowing the tide of war is receding, Obama said, adding that its time to focus on nation-building at home.
In the future, Obama said: We must chart a more cantered course. Like generations before, we must embrace Americas singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.
Obama said the goals he set when he announced he was sending an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan have been met.
We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11, he said. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al-Qaedas leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al-Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11.
Obama said he knows huge challenges remain. This is the beginning - but not the end - of our effort to wind down this war. We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.
Obama said withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean the war on terror is over and pledged to continue fighting terrorism wherever it rears its head to keep al-Qaeda and other groups from launching attacks against the United States or its allies. He also cautioned against turning toward isolationism.
Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American dream that is at the centre of our story. With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America - for this generation, and the next.
The war in Afghanistan has become the longest in US history. Obama has come under increasing pressure to withdraw since the May 2 killing of bin Laden. Obama noted Wednesday al-Qaeda remains dangerous but we have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.
Meanwhile, Obama said that US-Pakistan relationship had now become more honest, and he acknowledged that Islamabad has a legitimate role to play in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
In an interview with Voice of America (VOA), he also said that his decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan does not mean the US is abandoning that country.
About the tensions in relations between the United States and Pakistan, Obama said that relationship has become more honest over time. That raises some differences that are real, the president said. Obviously, the operation to take out Osama bin Laden created additional tensions, but I had always been very clear to Pakistan that if we ever found him [bin Laden] and had a shot, that we would take it.
Obama said, Pakistan not only has a responsibility but also a deep interest in dealing with terrorist elements that are still in their territory.
We think that Pakistan has a legitimate role to play as part of the reconciliation process. I know that President Karzai in his travels to Islamabad agreed that Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with the United States, should create a core group that can discuss how we can proceed in this process, he said.
Pakistan not only has a responsibility but also - I think - a deep interest in dealing with the terrorist elements that are still in their territory, he remarked.
Obama said his administration started focusing on Pakistan as part of the regional strategy two years ago and appreciated Islamabads overall cooperation in the anti-terror fight along the Afghan border.
Weve sought to strengthen cooperation with Pakistan. Obviously, that has created tensions as well, but overall Pakistan has cooperated with us in our intelligence-collection efforts, in striking at high-value targets within Pakistan.
He acknowledged that Pakistan suffered most from terrorism. We think that no country has suffered more from terrorist attacks than Pakistan. So this is entirely in their self-interest.
That raises some differences that are real. Obviously, the operation to take out Osama bin Laden created additional tensions, but I had always been very clear to Pakistan that if we ever found him and had a shot, that we would take it. We think that if Pakistan recognizes the threat to its sovereignty that comes out of the extremists in its midst, that theres no reason why we cant work cooperatively to make sure that both U.S. security interests, Pakistani security interests, and Afghan security interests converge.
Agencies add: Obama expressed support for fragile Afghan reconciliation talks with the Taliban, saying they could make progress in part because of our military effort.
Turning to al-Qaeda, Obama said documents seized from bin Ladens compound in Pakistan showed the organization was under enormous strain.
Meanwhile, Afghanistans Taliban Thursday dismissed news of US troop withdrawals as mere symbolism, vowing to fight on, but President Hamid Karzai said the move hastened his nations ability to fend for itself.
The Afghan Taliban said the US plan to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year was only symbolic and that more serious steps were needed to stop this pointless bloodshed.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again wants to make it clear that the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and (while) this does not happen, our armed struggle will increase from day to day, the Taliban said in a statement emailed to media.
While Karzai described Obamas decision as a good step in their favour and in favour of Afghanistan.
He congratulated his country on this step towards defending its own soil, through its own people.
Afghan defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi hailed the decision and dismissed fears over the capability of Afghan security forces.
The security forces, in particular the Afghan National Army, are prepared to fill this gap, he said.
It should be said clearly that there is no need for any concern regarding ensuring security and the continuation of planned operations as these soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan.