Obama to speed up withdrawal of Afghan forces

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

President Barack Obama is to fasttrack the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, reducing the number of military personnel at a speedier rate than that recommended by senior Pentagon commanders.

The decision, which was expected in his State of the Union address last night, will remove 34,000 of the 66,000 troops in the country by February 2014 in the face of advice by commanders, including the man who was in charge of the war effort until last weekend, Gen John Allen, who have said that no more than 25,000 should be recalled this year.

The president is seeking to strike a balance between securing political support for a speedy withdrawal from the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan while maintaining sufficient resources to support local troops as the US withdraws on a phased basis.

The Obama administration plans to keep troops in the country in 2015 and later years, but the number is still being considered. Military commanders want a base of about 10,000 troops after 2014; Obama’s advisers want a smaller presence.

The president’s comments on Afghanistan were one of only a few expected references to national security in his annual State of the Union address as he focused on domestic issues to rally grass-root support for highly ambitious legislative plans including changes to fiscal policy, and immigration and gun control laws, through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The future size of US involvement in Afghanistan, one of two conflicts that Obama aims to wind down, is being debated amid budgetary pressure on Congress to reduce federal spending, including military expenditure, which accounts for about $700 billion a year or a fifth of all government spending. The cost of maintaining one member of the US military in Afghanistan is estimated at about $1 million a year.

Deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter warned that the Pentagon would have to put hundreds of thousands of civilian workers on unpaid leave, cut the amount spent on ship and aircraft maintenance and curtail training if $46 billion in spending cuts come into effect as scheduled in two weeks.

“These devastating events are no longer distant problems. The wolf is at the door,” Mr Carter told the Senate armed services committee, urging Congress to delay the automatic cuts.

His testimony is in line with claims by military figures that trimming the defence department’s 10-year budget by about $500 billion would devastate the military and severely threaten US security.

Mr Carter said that the military faced a crisis of readiness by the end of the year due to the $46 billion in cuts forced through by the so-called sequestration of across the board spending cuts on March 1st and by the failure of Congress to decide on the level of defence spending for the 2013 fiscal year.

Sequestration is the by-product of a stand-off between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans from 2011, when the two sides agreed to raise the US debt limit after the GOP wanted cuts in government spending to match any increases in the country’s capacity to borrow.

Pressure on military spending mounts as the Pentagon faces criticism over whether its “Africa Command” division overseeing the training of armed forces in African countries is sufficiently resourced as the US responds to Islamic militants in Mali and Libya.

Leon Panetta, the outgoing US defence secretary, described the sequestration as “legislative madness”.