President Obama has ordered 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in the next 14 months with 10,000 to be withdrawn by the end of this year.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 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, while all US combat troops are scheduled to leave by 2013, provided that Afghan forces are ready to take over security. Analysts in the US however insists that the reductions are larger and faster than military commanders had advised.
Meanwhile 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."
Talking to the American public in a televised addressed form the White House, Obama said:
"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" he added.
"Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11... We have taken out more than half of al-Qaeda's leadership. We have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.
"In Afghanistan, we have inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of their strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilise more of the country."
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."
During his speech The U.S president also insisted: "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely"
The president also seized the occasion to announce that he has selected Chicago as the site for a NATO summit next May to discuss the next steps in Afghanistan.
As the situation in Afghanistan has worsened in the last two years, the U.S president speech was clearly not a declaration of victory however, keen to emphasise their main achievement to date in the fight against terror, his 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 added.
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."
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.
Obama claaerly insisted throughout that it was"the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war" as at least 68,000 US troops will remain in Afghanistan.
Following the U.S leader's announcement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy later said he would also begin to withdraw 4,000 French soldiers from Afghanistan.