Obama announces 33,000-troop cut from Afghanistan

U.S. mission will change from combat to support as Afghan forces take the lead, president says in televised address.

President Obama has ordered 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in the next 14 months with 10,000 to be withdrawn by the end of this year. The decision, announced in a televised address to the nation from the White House, will leave almost 70,000 American troops enmeshed in what has become the longest war in American history.

The timetable settled on by the president after a vigorous internal review was faster than sought by some top military commanders but much slower than demanded by many domestic political critics. By withdrawing 10,000 this year and an additional 23,000 by summer 2012, all the troops sent in the surge in December 2009 will be out.

"When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on al-Qaida, reverse the Taliban's momentum, and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country," Obama said. "I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to drawdown our forces this July."

Senior administration officials told reporters before the speech that the timetable could be accelerated. "That will be no later than September; it could be before," said one official. "There will be flexibility in the precise timing."

Obama said that after the initial withdrawal, troops "will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security Forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."

The president also used his speech to announce that he has selected Chicago as the site for a NATO summit next May to discuss the next steps in Afghanistan.

While the president's speech was not a declaration of victory in the decade-long war, aides stressed that the troop-withdrawal decision could be made only because of the success of the surge ordered by Obama. "The president is making this decision tonight from a position of success and strength," said one senior aide.

The decision reflects the administration's belief that Afghanistan no longer represents a major threat to the United States. "We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years," said a senior aide, saying that al-Qaida extremists are no longer trying to use that country as "a launching pad to carry out attacks" on U.S. interests. That threat has come more from Pakistan, he said. And he contended that the threat from there has degraded over the last year.

In a statement, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed Obama's announcement. "Over the past 18 months our troops have made tremendous progress degrading the capability of the Taliban while enhancing the Afghan security forces. It is critical that we continue to aggressively prosecute that strategy. I support the president's decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time, and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion."

Additionally, the White House saw the address as an opportunity to emphasize to the country that the president has kept his promise to pull out of Iraq and "responsibly end the war there. And now, we are beginning to reduce our troops in Afghanistan," said the aide.

Before his speech, the president called the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and NATO to inform them of his decision. He also placed several calls to congressional leaders, the White House said.

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