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Analysis Of President Obama's Remarks
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Analysis Of President Obama's Remarks

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Analysis Of President Obama's Remarks

Analysis Of President Obama's Remarks
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Michele Norris talks to NPR's Scott Horsley and other experts for their take on the president's plans to bring the 33,000 "surge" troops home by the summer of 2012.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

President Obama addressed the nation tonight, announcing his much anticipated plan to begin bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan: 10,000 by the end of this year, another 23,000 by next summer.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is the beginning but not the end of our effort to wind down this war.

NORRIS: The tide of war is receding, Mr. Obama said. And he proclaimed that by 2014, the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security. In addition to looking ahead, the president acknowledged the challenges of the past 10 years.

Pres. OBAMA: My fellow Americans, this has been a difficult decade for our country. We've learned anew the profound cost of war. A cost that's been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan.

NORRIS: Mr. Obama made it clear that obstacles to success in Afghanistan remain, among them: efforts to reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban, training Afghan security forces and cracking down on militants across the border in Pakistan.

Pres. OBAMA: We'll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments. 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.

NORRIS: The president wrapped up his short speech by speaking directly to the men and women fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pres. OBAMA: In this effort, we draw inspiration from our fellow Americans who have sacrificed so much on our behalf. To our troops, our veterans and their families, I speak for all Americans when I say that we will keep our sacred trust with you and provide you with the care and benefits and opportunity that you deserve.

NORRIS: For more on the president's speech, I'm joined in the studio by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And, Scott, it sounds as though Mr. Obama is charting a course through some sort of middle ground with the size and timing of the troop pullout.

SCOTT HORSLEY: That's right, Michele. You know, we were told that General Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had presented the president with a range of options, and that while this course was certainly within that range, the White House has acknowledged that there were military commanders who would've like to have seen more troops stay on the ground in Afghanistan for a longer period. The defense secretary had made it clear he wanted to see only a very modest troop withdrawal this year.

At the same time, the president was getting pressure from some lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, for a speedier withdrawal. We heard Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, say he wanted to see at least 15,000 troops brought out this year. And Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who has, you know, been an ally of the administration in many battles, has also criticized this path for not going far enough in terms of bringing troops home.

NORRIS: And there was a certain amount of public pressure off - the president talked tonight about the tide of war receding. The tide of public support for the wars in Iran and Afghanistan seems to be - Iraq - excuse me - and Afghanistan seems to be receding as well.

HORSLEY: The Pew Research Center came out with a poll this week that showed for the first time that a majority of Americans wanted to see troops brought home as soon as possible as opposed to leaving them Afghanistan until the situation is stabilized is the way it was phrased.

Now, it's interesting, a lot of those folks still say the war in Afghanistan has been worth waging. They still believe the U.S. is achieving goals there. So it's not necessarily that they're frustrated and feel that it's gone badly and they want to withdraw troops for that reason. A lot of people feel, especially in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing, that, you know, we've done what we can and now it's time to bring the troops out.

NORRIS: In the lead-up to the speech, there's a number that we've heard over and over again throughout the week: War cost $10 million a month. What will this troop drawdown mean for the overall budget?

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. Troops cost money. And, you know, the more troops you bring home, the more you save. And lately, members of Congress have grown allergic to anything that cost money. And so that is certainly a bigger pressure today than it was even when the president ordered the surge 18 months ago.

If we're bringing home 10,000 troops this year, that means you'll be spending $10 billion less next year. Another $23 billion in savings when you bring the balance of the surge troop home. But that still leaves 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, so we're still going to be spending a considerable sum in that country. That said, the war costs are about 17 percent of the defense budget. So you could end this war tomorrow, and it would not go very far towards balancing the budget.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: For more analysis, we turn now to two of our regular political commentators: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Matthew Continetti, he's opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. And we are also joined by John Nagl, he's president of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and led efforts to train both Iraqi and Afghan security forces.

And John Nagl, I'm going to begin with you. You were at a briefing at the White House today and we heard from Scott about the sort of conflicting pressures that the president faced in making this decision. What did the military want to see and where do they perhaps have to make concessions?

Mr. JOHN NAGL (Center for a New American Security): So the military understood that there had to be drawdown. They understood the political pressures that the president is under, the loss of support from the American people and increasingly from the Congress. So, they were ready to see troop reductions and in fact, they were ready to see troop reductions of some 10,000 this year and 23,000 next year, as the president in fact announced.

The one thing they really wanted to see that they didn't see in this speech was to leave the troops in Afghanistan next year through the summer fighting season. In Afghanistan, it's much like baseball season, the weather, the climate only allows the Taliban to fight during certain periods of the year. And leaving the troops in Afghanistan until November, December of next year, rather than requiring that they all be pulled by the end of August would have made a real difference to the commanders on the ground, whose job has frankly gotten more complicated as a result of the decisions that the president made.

NORRIS: And how did the White House justify that?

Mr. NAGL: The White House argued that the fighting season has become less important - the summer fighting season has become less important over the last several years, as American troops have gotten better at the counterinsurgency campaign that they're waging. In particular, American Special Forces - day, night, all weather - putting a real hurting on the Taliban and on Al-Qaida, making Afghanistan a very inhospitable place for those units to fight.

And also argued that after two full years of surge forces - the last of the surge forces arrived on the ground in the summer of 2010 - that it was a fair effort and the Afghans had been given what they needed with a more capable and larger Afghan security force, less capable Taliban, that after two years of the surge it was time to turn responsibility over to the Afghans.

NORRIS: E.J. and Matt, I want to bring you into this on sort of the strategy that the president outlined and also sort of the political analysis here. Anyone who was paying attention this week knew that the president was finally going to talk about a drawdown of 10,000 troops. That was leaked out throughout the week. But Matt, did you hear any surprises despite that?

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (The Weekly Standard): My - I thought the number of troops announced, the full surge complement that he announced in December 2009, he's withdrawing them within the year, that was a surprise to me. Even early as today, I thought we'd have a number around 10, maybe 15.

But when I look at this speech, I see the president facing a test of leadership. And he had all this bad political news. He has the falling poll numbers. He has all these budgetary talks, this attention to - this drive to come home America. And he had that on the one hand.

And on the other hand, he had General David Petraeus, the greatest commander of our age, he had Bob Gates at Defense, he had the incoming commander in Afghanistan, Marine General Allen, telling him hold off. Let's wait. Let's have some patience. Let's have a strategic pause, if you will, and let these gains take root. And Obama went the political route. And in my opinion, he failed that test of leadership.

NORRIS: E.J.?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): See, I thought Matt would be more grateful to his president and for this reason, which is he is very aware, as everybody in the country is, about how exhausted Americans are with this war. And I think the speech was an effort to buy some more time in Afghanistan but still satisfy both Obama's desire to get out, but more in the country's desire to get out.

As Scott said earlier, this speech will be hit by the left and parts of the right for not getting out fast enough, and by some of the right on the other side. Matt, Senator McCain said something earlier for getting out too quickly.

He could've given this speech in two tones. He could've taken exactly the same policy and said we are not going to withdraw until our job is done. Or he could have said we are beginning our withdrawal. He said the second because he knows where the country is. And I think, you asked the political part of it, in 2012, he's going to say that he successfully ended the war in Iraq, he got our troops out and left Iraq in reasonably good shape, and he's in the middle of ending a second war, which was actually the first war, in Afghanistan. And I think his emphasis tonight on that decade of war, he wants to be the president who ended the decade of war.

NORRIS: And did the capture and killing of bin Laden help in laying out this timetable?

Mr. DIONNE: The capture and killing of bin Laden helps Obama, but I think it puts more pressure on him to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Because I think for a lot of Americans, once we got Osama bin Laden, we got a big part of the job that Americans in their guts wanted done. And that coincides with the fact that there are hardly any al-Qaida left in Afghanistan. So it becomes very difficult to make a case for staying in Afghanistan - I guess 50 is the number, John would probably know the exact number - but there aren't very many al-Qaida left in Afghanistan. So I think the killing of bin Laden actually increased pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan.

NORRIS: The president talked about Afghanistan's ability to stand on its own. And it's interesting when you hear him talk about this, when you actually follow what's going on on the ground, there are real questions about whether the Afghan security forces can actually support the country, whether - there are still very significant questions about corruption on the ground. Did the president paint a realistic picture of what's going on on the ground in Afghanistan?

Mr. NAGL: So the president talked about the very clear tactical and operational gains that have been made by the surge forces, in particular in the south and in the west where the Taliban has been knocked at least on their heels if not flat on their backs. He mentioned the great successes we've seen. Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, for the past two years, overseeing a vast improvement in both the size and the quality of the Afghan security forces, an extraordinary effort taking a population that has very low literacy rates and beginning to turn them into pretty good soldiers.

So the possibility of handing over something reasonable to the Afghans and leaving them with a reasonable chance, given, I think, what is going to remain an American commitment of advisors and special forces for many years still to come, passed 2014, I think there's a reasonable chance of all that happening, but it is going to be tougher than it might've been if we'd been able to fight through the next summer fighting season with all of those troops.

NORRIS: Matt Continetti, when the president says this process of transition will be complete and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security, says this will happen by 2014, sound realistic to you?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I mean, that depends, especially at the rate we've been going, I think that might have been realistic if you had been able to hold this territory - with Marines, with Army - that they have made the gains in and give General Caldwell the time to continue that training. I mean, look, the outcome here that Obama would want is an outcome similar to what happened in Iraq after the surge, and that's where you had the training take place over many years.

NORRIS: Matthew Continetti, he's opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. E.J. Dionne is with the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. We were also joined by John Nagl. He's president of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, and led the effort to train both Iraqi and Afghan security forces.

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