Obama, military advisers differed on pace of troops’ withdrawal

By Matthew Lee and Robert Burns
Associated Press / June 24, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top military officer and its top diplomat made clear yesterday that President Obama rejected the advice of his generals in choosing a quicker path to winding down the war in Afghanistan.

The Obama troop withdrawal plan, widely interpreted as marking the beginning of the end of the US combat role in Afghanistan, drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans decried it as undercutting the military mission at a critical stage of the war, while many Democrats called it too timid.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, took a swipe at Obama from the Senate floor, questioning the timing of his troop pullout plan.

“Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners — the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective,’’ McCain said.

Obama announced Wednesday night that he will pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by December and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.

Yesterday, the president spoke at New York’s Fort Drum to troops and commanders of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Its headquarters staff is in southern Afghanistan and its soldiers have been among the most frequently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Obama, perhaps responding to the criticism from the right, said that he is not pulling troops home “precipitously’’ or risking the gains they have achieved.

“We’re going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained,’’ he said.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supports the Obama plan although he had recommended a less aggressive drawdown schedule. Obama’s approach adds risk to the military mission, Mullen said. But he added: “It’s manageable risk.’’

Army General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said later that he, too, had recommended a more gradual withdrawal, as had Marine General James Mattis, who as head of US Central Command is overseer of all US military operations in the greater Mideast.

Petraeus, appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared to suggest that he had vigorously opposed the timeline that the president chose. He implied he remains uneasy about the decision but said he does not think the plan is destined to fail.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tacitly acknowledged the military had wanted more troops to remain for a longer period of time. And she said the keys to finally ending the conflict will be political negotiations with the Taliban leadership and managing a highly contentious relationship with Pakistan.

Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that prospects for successful peace talks with the Taliban are unclear.