Afghan troop plan is political gamble for Obama

WASHINGTON Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:59am IST

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan during a televised address from the East Room of the White House in Washington June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan during a televised address from the East Room of the White House in Washington June 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's new troop drawdown plan for Afghanistan may be too slow to satisfy the growing ranks of war-weary U.S. lawmakers and too fast to sit well with military leaders.

But Obama is gambling that a promise to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops this year and 23,000 more by the end of next summer will be enough to buy time to prevent Afghanistan from causing serious damage to his 2012 re-election prospects.

The troop reductions he unveiled in a prime-time televised speech on Wednesday night are deeper and quicker than the Pentagon sought, reflecting pressure to start laying out an endgame in a long, costly and increasingly unpopular war.

At the same time, the speed and scope of the drawdown fall short of the demands of many of Obama's own Democratic allies and a growing number of Republicans advocating a more accelerated pullout from Afghanistan.

Unease in Washington over the decade-long war has escalated amid rising worries about tight budgets and high unemployment, Americans' chief concerns and the issues likely to drive voters in the next presidential election.

Although polls show Afghanistan still registering relatively low on the the list of the U.S. electorate's priorities, Obama and his aides are taking heed of mounting skepticism about the war, which is costing the United States $110 billion a year.

A Pew Research poll released on Tuesday found a record 56 percent of Americans favored bringing the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible.

By sending Americans a message he is moving to wind down the war, Obama may gain breathing room to avoid serious political repercussions as he steps up his re-election bid.

The White House is also hoping to placate liberal Democrats, a key support base for Obama, whose 2008 election victory was driven in part by his opposition to the Iraq war.

"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," Obama said, answering critics on both sides of the political aisle who have insisted the United States needs to put its biggest emphasis on solving problems at home.

BOOST IN ELECTION SEASON?

The White House may even be banking on Obama getting a boost when voters see troops streaming home from Afghanistan next summer around the time of the Democratic National Convention in the final run-up to the November election.

Even with the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by then, the United States will still have nearly twice as many forces in Afghanistan than when Obama took office in 2009.

Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal strategy carries peril as well as promise.

The Pentagon brass had argued for a more modest initial drawdown to avert the threat of a reversal of recent gains on the ground against a Taliban-led insurgency. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was also wary of leaving too fast and Obama's move went beyond the options he presented to the president last week.

White House advisers, led by Vice President Joe Biden, had used the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to buttress the argument the time was ripe to scale back the counterinsurgency campaign spearheaded by the 30,000 extra "surge" troops Obama ordered deployed in late 2009.

Obama's Afghanistan decision also comes at a time of rising congressional doubts about U.S. participation in the three-month-old NATO-led air war in Libya.

Reflecting discontent with his Afghanistan policy from his party's anti-war wing, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern said, "What the president needs to tell us is how -- and when -- he's going to bring all the troops home."

There is also the political risk of appearing to have overruled his commanders by failing to take their recommendation for a slower pace of withdrawal in the transition toward ending the NATO combat mission in 2014.

But Obama may feel he can afford to weather any dispute with the Pentagon brass after gaining greater credibility as commander in chief by ordering the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden last month in Pakistan.

His first chance to test how well the drawdown plan sits with the military will be on Thursday, when he visits Fort Drum in upstate New York, home to an army unit that has been among the most frequently deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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