Obama To Unveil Troop Drawdown In Afghanistan

President Obama will announce his decision on how many American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan Wednesday night. In late 2009, the president had approved a "surge" force of 30,00 troops. At the time, he promised to begin bringing them home in July 2011. With that deadline approaching, a debate has emerged inside the White House about how many troops to pull out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's get a preview of President Obama's announcement on Afghanistan. He promised to begin the U.S. withdrawal this summer and offers details tonight.

As we're about to hear, the decision involves military pressures in Afghanistan, as well as political pressures here in the United States.

And we begin our coverage with NPR's Tamara Keith who's in our studios. Tamara, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Starting with the numbers, what are the range of choices the president has?

KEITH: Well, first we should note that we're talking about a drawdown of the surge troops. So that 18 months ago, he sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Now it's time for him to begin bringing them home. And reports on this vary. But what we're hearing is something in the range of five to 10,000 troops coming home soon. And then a longer term reduction, by perhaps the end of next year, of the remainder of those 30,000 surge troops.

INSKEEP: Okay. So maybe a two-phase or several phase withdrawl here. And at the end, most of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan will still be in Afghanistan. Is that right?

KEITH: That is correct, that more than 60,000 would still be there in Afghanistan.

The president has this interesting challenge here. He's under growing pressure here at home. There's a new poll out yesterday from the Pew Center, saying a majority of Americans now believe troops should be brought home as soon as possible. Fifty-six percent say that, and it's a big jump since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But then the president also has to please, on some level, the military. The military is at least quietly saying that, you know, we've made progress in Afghanistan but it's still very fragile; violence is still quite high and pulling out too many troops too soon would be a mistake

And then there are the international audiences. President Karzai in Afghanistan is watching. He doesnt want to be abandoned. Pakistan is watching.

And Stephen Biddle, at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Taliban will be watching, too.

Dr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow, Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations): He's trying to convey to the Taliban the message that we are not heading for the exit, and therefore you guys really ought to make some concessions 'cause that's the only way you're going to get a shorter war.

KEITH: So the president has a lot of people to persuade or disappoint.

INSKEEP: Which may be is part of the reason you're telling us he may give us several numbers in several different areas, several different parts of time -several different periods of time.

KEITH: Right, something to possibly please everyone. You know, for the people that want a big number, this could potentially provide a tangible endpoint. But it could also give the generals on the ground the flexibility to keep numbers high through the next two fighting seasons - which they say are important.

But to keep this all in perspective, as we said before, we're only talking about the extra troops - the extra surge troops that the president sent over in December of 2009.

And I called up Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution. He put it this way.

Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution): From all we hear, the most radical thing the administration would do, perhaps, is pull 15,000 forces out this year and another 20,000 out next year, leaving 65,000 American troops, even at the end of that two-year process.

KEITH: And when President Obama took office, there were 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Today there are 99,000 plus NATO troops.

INSKEEP: Tamara, people are sure, in the next few days, to raise a question, famously raised by General David Petraeus - the Afghan commander, the commander of forces in Afghanistan. He raised it in the context of Iraq, maybe it applies here.

Tell me how this ends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: And that is a very good question. This speech tonight, perhaps - we dont know what the contents are - might give us a sense of how it ends. But these numbers that we're talking about, this is how the surge ends. This isnt how the whole thing ends.

There are still big questions about strategy: What are we trying to achieve; what is the U.S. trying to achieve; was getting bin Laden enough? You know, all along the goal has been to prevent al-Qaida from having a base of operations to attack the U.S. again. When can we say thats been accomplished.

You know, U.S. troops in the last 18 months have been working very hard to build up Afghan police and security forces, also trying to pushback the Taliban. So the idea, the strategy for the last couple of years, has been, by the end 2014 - still three years away - the U.S. will hopefully be able to hand over operations to those Afghan forces.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR'S Tamara Keith.

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