President Obama was tonight preparing to defend his decision to order thousands of US troops home from Afghanistan in defiance of the wishes of senior military commanders.
In a primetime speech to a war-weary American public, Mr Obama was to argue that the 18-month-old surge strategy had worked, putting the US military in a “position of strength” that would allow up to 10,000 of those troops to come home by the end of the year. The remainder of the 30,000 extra surge troops are expected to be withdrawn by the end of 2012, leaving 68,000 in place.
Mr Obama’s announcement was due as the number of Americans advocating an immediate withdrawal reached a record high of 56 per cent. Political pressure to bring the troops home has been mounting among Republicans and Democrats alike. They have questioned the justification of the $10 billion (£6 billion) a month cost of the war at a time of deep fiscal pain.
Senior military officials, including General Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, are said to be dismayed at the scale of the cuts. They argued for a far more modest cutback of 3,000-5,000 troops, achievable by changing troop rotations.
A senior associate of General Petraeus said that the commander would never have advocated a larger-scale withdrawal and decried what he saw as Mr Obama’s capitulation to public opinion over military needs. “This will put the mission at risk; this is bad news,” he told The Times. “The mission requirement hasn’t changed, so it means fewer troops will have to carry out the same roles and this will drive up casualties.”
David Cameron, who is to follow Mr Obama’s lead with his own announcement of a partial British drawdown, is facing similar criticism over a failure to adequately heed the advice of his generals. Last night Mr Obama spoke by telephone to the Prime Minister about Afghanistan.
James Arbuthnot, the chairman of the Commons defence select committee, chided Mr Cameron for showing his frustration with military chiefs who have expressed public doubts over the withdrawal, telling them: “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.”
Mr Arbuthnot said: “The military advice we are getting is something we should not cast aside or dismiss as not being very important.”
Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, accused the Prime Minister of being “crass and high-handed” in his put-down of senior officers.
Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said that the President had promised that, whatever the scale of the drawdown, it would not put remaining troops at any greater risk.
But General Petraeus’s associate said that this was the second time that Mr Obama had made a decision that effectively ignored the preferred option put before him by US commanders.
In 2009 General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander in Afghanistan, had asked Mr Obama for 40,000 surge troops.
Mr Obama eventually authorised a deployment of 30,000 troops after an ill-tempered, months-long review process in which the President complained that the military were failing to present him with an adequate range of options.
Tensions between the White House and Pentagon have persisted, and last year Mr Obama was forced to fire General McChrystal after unflattering accounts of their disagreements appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. He replaced him with General Petraeus.
General Petraeus is expected to leave Afghanistan next month, weeks earlier than planned, leaving his successor, Lieutenant-General John Allen of the Marine Corps, to oversee the return of the first batch of surge troops.
General Petraeus is due to appear before the US Senate Intelligence Committee today for hearings to confirm him in his new post as director of the CIA, succeeding Leon Panetta who is moving to the Pentagon to become Defence Secretary after Mr Gates retires.
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