President Barack Obama will announce Wednesday his decision on how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan next month, concluding a process of consultation with his advisers and commanders that will set the military course for the rest of the war.
Administration officials said final numbers, while still to be determined, will chart the glide path for further withdrawals between now and the end of 2012, a period when Obama will face a re-election fight. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe the nearly decade-old war is no longer worth fighting.
The announcement will set a withdrawal schedule for the 33,000 “surge” troops Obama sent to Afghanistan early last year as part of an escalation that his commanders say has succeeded in clearing Taliban fighters from key areas in southern Afghanistan.
That decision put Obama at odds with some civilian advisers, who favored a more focused counterterrorism effort rather than the military’s expansive counterinsurgency campaign designed to stabilize the weak Afghan state.
In his Wednesday speech, Obama will remind Americans of the reasons behind the escalation and the rationale for keeping tens of thousands of troops in the country at a time of fiscal strain at home.
Although Obama has yet to make a final decision on how many troops to remove in July, administration officials say the number is likely to fall between 3,000 to 5,000, including some originally scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan but will instead stay home or be sent elsewhere.
The administration had hoped to couple Obama’s announcement on troop withdrawals with news of progress on political reconciliation with Taliban leaders. But discussions have stalled after several rounds of talks this spring between U.S. officials and Taliban interlocutors, first in Qatar and later in Germany.
In recent meetings with the president, military leaders have requested that most of the surge forces remain in the county through the end of next year. As one administration official put it, “The commanders think in terms of fighting seasons, and that would give them two more full ones with the bulk of these troops.”
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House planning.
But Obama informed senior advisers on Monday morning that he has yet to reach a final decision on how many troops to withdraw and over what time. The official said the president “could slow down or accelerate” the withdrawal pace that military commanders have asked for.
White House officials are still working through the specifics of Wednesday’s speech, including the venue and the time of day.
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