Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Washington’s World: July 18th – July 24th, 2011

The as yet unresolved impasse between the Administration and Republican Representatives and Senators over the debt ceiling continues to pre-occupy the attention of top policymakers. Whatever solution is eventually found, the prospects for American governance are not hopeful. As we noted in our January list of our drivers for 2011, the ideological split between Democrats and Republicans in Congress is deep – and getting deeper. Mutual trust is totally absent as each side accuses the other of bad faith. This predicted theme of dysfunctional governance will intensify as the 2012 election draws closer – with unpredictable implications for US policy formation, especially on economic matters where the fissures are at their widest. Foreign policy will have to navigate as best it can against this background. No grand initiatives are likely. Nonetheless, policy is not paralyzed. Secretary of State Clinton is well respected, if not for her strategic vision but for her diligent commitment to her office. After a hesitant start, she is looking for a wider US role in the ‘Arab Spring’.  She has substantially escalated US criticism of Syria and has piloted US policy toward recognition of the Transitional National Council as the lawful government of Libya. Administration officials are growing more confident, especially after recent exchanges with the Russians, that their goal of regime change is within reach. Should this happen, the Administration will enjoy a respite from the criticism it has faced in Congress. On more far-reaching matters, the Pentagon is seeking more definition in its relations with the Chinese military. Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has conducted another round of negotiations with his Chinese counterparts. A Pentagon official commented to us: “Both sides are trying to understand the other, but there is much mutual suspicion. This is not going to be an easy relationship.” Finally, the Pentagon has released a new cyber strategy. This is still in its early stages of formulation and senior officials assert that US objectives are defensive. However, our conversations with experts in this field lead us to conclude that the US is increasingly looking at enhancing its already robust offensive capabilities. We believe that the cyber dimension has the potential to transform traditional international relations.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Washington’s World: July 4th – July 10th, 2011

While President Obama’s news conference of June 29th addressed the two main foreign policy issues of the moment – Libya and Afghanistan – a political consensus on these matters remains elusive. Legal questions about the constitutionality of the Libyan expedition – raised by Democrats and Republicans alike – persist; the pace of Obama’s announced drawdown in Afghanistan continues to be hotly debated. The rising intensity of conservative critique ensures that Afghanistan will feature as the most prominent of the foreign policy issues in the 2012 campaign cycle. Obama’s two new national security appointments – Leon Panetta as secretary of Defense and David Petraeus as Director of the CIA – will be the key voices in the coming months. Petraeus has the more difficult task as he takes charge of an agency that has always been more skeptical about the military’s attachment to counter-insurgency strategy than the Pentagon. While defending Obama’s approach at his Senate nomination testimony, the new US commander in Afghanistan,General John Allen, also left open the possibility that he would recommend a slower withdrawal should he judge that to be advisable. As these changes and the July 4th holiday take place and the August 2nd deadline for extending the federal debt limit nears, something of a pause in foreign policy priority is taking place. Two matters are, however, unavoidable. The soon to take place flotilla protest against the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza has drawn strong State Department criticism, but will pose awkward questions for the Administration should the Israelis take action against the participants, who include a number of prominent Americans. In the same Middle East context, the likely vote at the UN General Assembly in September on Palestinian statehood is also opening a gap between the US and some of its closest allies in Europe and the Middle East. Neither matter is welcome to the White House as it seeks to guard itself against Republican attacks for foreign policy weakness. With regard to the federal debt limit, the necessary consensus for a deal between the two parties is nowhere close to gelling. In Republican eyes, what they saw as Obama's confrontational tone at his press conference widened the gap. Most observers believe an agreement will emerge – perhaps at the last minute – but already thecredit rating agencies are issuing warnings that see the possibility of a default as a real possibility.

U.S. turns to other routes to supply Afghan war as relations with Pakistan fray

Washington Post

By Published: July 3

The U.S. military is rapidly expanding its aerial and Central Asian supply routes to the war in Afghanistan, fearing that Pakistan could cut off the main means of providing American and NATO forces with fuel, food and equipment.
Although Pakistan has not explicitly threatened to sever the supply lines, Pentagon officials said they are concerned the routes could be endangered by the deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations, partly fed by ill willfrom the cross-border raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Memories are fresh of Pakistan’s temporary closure of a major crossing into Afghanistan in September, resulting in a logjam of hundreds of supply trucks and fuel tankers, dozens of which were destroyed in attacks by insurgents.
While reducing the shipment of cargo through Pakistan would address a strategic weakness that U.S. military officials have long considered an Achilles’ heel, shifting supply lines elsewhere would substantially increase the cost of the war and make the United States more dependent on authoritarian countries in Central Asia.
A senior U.S. defense official said the military wants to keep using Pakistan, which offers the most direct and the cheapest routes to Afghanistan. But the Pentagon also wants the ability to bypass the country if necessary.
With landlocked Afghanistan lacking seaports, and hostile Iran blocking access from the west, Pentagon logisticians have limited alternatives.
“It’s either Central Asia or Pakistan — those are the two choices. We’d like to have both,” the defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating Pakistan. “We’d like to have a balance between them, and not be dependent on either one, but always have the possibility of switching.”
U.S. military officials said they have emergency backup plans in case the Pakistan routes became unavailable.
“We will be on time, all the time,” said Vice Adm. Mark D. Harnitchek, deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the movement of supplies and equipment.
In such an event, however, the military would have to deliver the bulk of its cargo by air, a method that might not be sustainable; it costs up to 10 times as much as shipping via Pakistan.
“We’d have to be a little bit more mindful of what we put in the pipe,” Harnitchek said.
The Defense Department is already boosting the amount of cargo it sends to Afghanistan by air. To save on costs, the military is shipping as many of those supplies as possible to seaports in the Persian Gulf before loading them on planes bound for the war zone.
As recently as 2009, the U.S. military moved 90 percent of its surface cargo through Pakistan, arriving by ship at the port in Karachi and then snaking through mountain passes, deserts and remote tribal areas before crossing the border into Afghanistan. The Pakistan supply lines are served entirely by contractors instead of U.S. military convoys and are vulnerable to bandits, insurgents and natural disasters.
Today, almost 40 percent of surface cargo arrives in Afghanistan from the north, along a patchwork of Central Asian rail and road routes that the Pentagon calls the Northern Distribution Network. Military planners said they are pushing to raise the northern network’s share to as much as 75 percent by the end of this year.
Obama administration officials said they are negotiating expanded agreements with KazakhstanUzbekistan and other countries that would allow for the delivery of additional supplies to the Afghan war zone. Washington also wants permission to withdraw vehicles and other equipment from Afghanistan as the U.S. military prepares to pull out one-third of its forces by September 2012.
By shifting the burden to Central Asia, however, the U.S. military has become increasingly reliant on authoritarian countries, prompting criticism from human rights groups that the Obama administration is cozying up to dictators.
For instance, more than one-third of the northern-route cargo passes through tiny Azerbaijan, a country saddled by “pervasive corruption,” according to the State Department’s annual human rights report. U.S. defense officials also say the northern supply lines would not be possible without the cooperation of Russia. One new route runs through Siberia.
The biggest potential choke point, however, lies in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that borders northern Afghanistan. It previously had kicked the U.S. military out of the country after Washington complained about the killing of hundreds of protesters in 2005.
But as the United States has deepened its involvement in Afghanistan, relations with Uzbekistan have warmed up again. Today, more than 80 percent of supplies shipped along the Northern Distribution Network pass through the country.
Expanded supply lines
The northern routes were developed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Since then, the U.S. government has expanded the network into a spiderweb of supply lines.
Some start at Baltic seaports and run through Russia and Central Asia by rail. Another key line picks up traffic on the Black Sea and funnels it through the Caucasus region. One winding truck route begins at a U.S. Army depot at Germersheim, Germany, and ends, an average of 60 days later, at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. As with the Pakistan routes, the deliveries are all made by contractors.
“If you look at what we’ve done there in the last two years, we look at it more or less as a logistics miracle,” said Alan F. Estevez, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary for logistics.
There are two big limitations, however, on what the Pentagon can ship through Central Asia. First, supplies are generally restricted to food, water and construction material; ammunition, weapons and other “lethal” cargo are prohibited.
Also, the routes are strictly one-way. Nothing can be shipped back out of the war zone.
U.S. officials said they are trying to negotiate deals with several countries to remove those restrictions. That will be crucial as the United States withdraws 33,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next 15 months, military leaders said.
Perhaps the most vital section in the northern network is a rail line that crosses south through Uzbekistan and over the Amu Darya river to reach Hairaton, Afghanistan. About five out of every six cargo containers travel this route.
“In reality, Uzbekistan is really at the center of all these routes,” said Alexander Cooley, a Barnard College professor and an expert on U.S. military relations in Central Asia. “They’re certainly in the catbird seat. And they know it.”
The final leg of the Uzbek rail line, from the city of Karshi to the Afghan border, underscores how the U.S. military has been forced to rely on rickety routes to sustain its troops.
In November 2009, U.S. embassy officials in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, were warned by a confidential source that the tracks were brittle and at risk of fracturing if trains carried more than half their usual loads. On top of that, the Soviet-era locomotives carrying U.S. cargo were not designed to cross steep mountains; engineers had to apply the brakes almost constantly as they moved downhill.
“By the time the trains have descended from the mountains, the wheels are glowing red hot,” the embassy reported in a diplomatic cable. The source, an engineer, said he was “appalled by how long it takes to transport anything by rail in Uzbekistan” and that he refused to take the train for fear of a crash.
The cable, titled “Uzbek Rail: Red Hot Wheels to Afghanistan” and obtained by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, concluded that “a train wreck is possible in the literal sense.”
U.S. military officials said they knew of no accidents or safety problems on the 200-mile rail segment. In February, Uzbekistan announced it had obtained a $218 million loan from Japan to upgrade the line to the Afghan border.
Human rights concerns
Uzbekistan has been assailed by human rights groups for repression under President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the country since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy group, ranks it as one of the nine worst countries in the world for civil liberties and political rights.
From 2001 to 2005, the U.S. military relied on an Uzbek air base as a hub for combat and supply missions to Afghanistan. U.S. forces were evicted from the base after Washington pressured Karimov to allow an international probe into the deaths of hundreds of anti-government protesters in the province of Andijan.
Since 2008, however, Washington has steadily worked to repair relations. A stream of U.S. military leaders and diplomats has visited Tashkent, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December and Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, in late May. Uzbekistan, in turn, has reopened its railroads, highways and airspace for U.S. cargo.
Thomas M. Sanderson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the Obama administration has continued to raise human rights concerns with Uzbekistan but that the Afghan supply routes usually take precedence.
“There is no doubt about it. We are there for one primary reason, and that is to enable our operations in Afghanistan,” said Sanderson, who has studied the Northern Distribution Network.
State Department officials said they do not hesitate to press Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record. When Clinton visited Tashkent, they noted, she made a point of meeting activists and calling for the release of jailed journalists.
“We’ve made a real effort to try to engage Uzbekistan on human rights and in trafficking persons, and in some cases there’s been some progress,” said Robert O. Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia. “This is something that’s in their own interest to do, to allow greater freedom of religion and greater freedom of expression.”
Diplomatic cables, however, show Uzbek officials have not hesitated to demand U.S. restraint on human rights in exchange for cooperation on the supply routes.
In March 2009, shortly after the State Department gave an award to an Uzbek human rights activist, Foreign Minister Vladi­mir Norov made an “implicit threat” to suspend deliveries to Afghanistan, according to a cable signed by Richard B. Norland, the U.S. ambassador in Tashkent at the time.
An angry Karimov also complained to Norland personally.
“Put yourself in my place,” Karimov told the ambassador, according to the cable. “Would you trust me if I had done this?”
In that cable and others to Washington, Norland counseled the Obama administration to check its public criticism of Karimov to maintain the viability of the supply lines. In advance of a visit to Tashkent by a senior State Department official, Norland advised using “private, but frank diplomacy” to cajole Uzbekistan rather than “more openly coercive measures.”
“Uzbek pride often gets the better of rationality and officials here will think nothing of cutting off their nose to spite their face,” Norland added in a July 2009 cable.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

NATO’s Libya campaign drags on

By Michael Birnbaum and Ernesto Londono, Published: June 26

NAPLES — As NATO bombs began to rain on Libya in March, President Obama and other Western leaders assured their war-weary publics that the campaign to protect civilians from Moammar Gaddafi’s crackdown would be over within weeks.

Now the coalition’s springtime incursion has stretched to summer, and Gaddafi’s resilience has startled the leaders who committed to the operation. Calls are growing to end it even as NATO pleads for more time.

As the campaign enters its fourth month, NATO officials insist that it is succeeding and that Gaddafi will become the Arab Spring’s third casualty. But that will happen, they say, only in a slow and steady advance on the capital as his troops run out of supplies, not in a flash of pyrotechnics that puts him out of power in an instant.

“The noose is tightening around him, and there’s very few places for him to go,” Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian head of the operations, said Saturday in an interview at his Naples headquarters. But, he added, “You don’t stay in power for 41 years and expect that he’s going to leave at the first sign of stresses.”

Indications of a fraying commitment to the mission were evident in a House vote Friday in which an unusual coalition of anti-war Democrats and tea party Republicans joined to reject a measure to authorize U.S. involvement in the Libya operation, even as they declined to strip part of its funding. In Britain, a top commander said last week that if the campaign goes on past September, his forces could crack under the strain. On Wednesday, Italy’s foreign minister called for an immediate end to hostilities.

NATO has flown more than 4,700 strike sorties, pummeling bunkers, depots and vehicles and reducing much of Gaddafi’s army to ruins. It watches his military movements with drones that can remain in the sky for days.

Still, Gaddafi holds on, continuing to cause casualties in the rebel-held city of Misurata, in the mountain towns south of Tripoli and along the front line in the east.

Bouchard said NATO’s extreme caution about civilian deaths — in one case scuttling days of planning because a soccer game was being played next to a target — has slowed the campaign. The upshot, he said, is that there has been only one instance in which NATO thinks it may have caused civilian casualties, and few opportunities for the Libyan government to present evidence of more.

Both sides say that credible allegations of civilian deaths probably are the best weapon Libya can use against NATO. The nervousness was palpable at NATO’s operational headquarters on Friday before major strikes on Brega, a now-depopulated city near the main front line that NATO says government troops have been using as a base.

NATO later said it hit seven command-and-control nodes in the city, along with 28 other targets. Libyan officials said Saturday that the strikes killed 15 civilians, but they did not present evidence to support that number and in the past have exaggerated when saying that civilians were killed in strikes.

Measures that could speed Gaddafi’s departure, such as cutting overland fuel lines to Tripoli, aren’t being carried out because the United Nations mandate does not allow targeting civilian infrastructure, Bouchard said, adding that he is cautious about potentially harming civilians in the process.

One major problem with the campaign has been unrealistic expectations from the outset, analysts said.

“With any use of air power comes this public expectation that airplanes will prove our resolve, that we’ll be able to deter the enemy, that they can’t possibly win and will capitulate,” said Tami Davis Biddle, a military historian at the U.S. Army War College. “But this idea that aerial bombardment equals capitulation is a really flawed equation.”

Rebels have blamed NATO for their inability to make meaningful headway in their advance toward Tripoli, although they also say they are slowly smuggling weapons into the capital to undermine it from within. Rebel leaders based in the east say their grip on the besieged port city of Misurata — the bloodiest and arguably most important front line in the conflict — is fraying. Rebels took control of the city in late April, despite intense shelling and artillery attacks by forces loyal to Gaddafi, but they have been unable to push westward.

Rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said opposition leaders are mystified by what they perceive as the coalition’s reluctance to more forcefully attack Gaddafi troops on the front lines.

“NATO is a mystery to us,” Ali, who is based in Doha, Qatar, said in an interview via Skype. “This is getting to a stage where it’s getting very, very dangerous.”

NATO officials say they are doing all they can without risking civilian casualties, pointing to Libyan government forces switching tactics since NATO’s operation began. Many have shed their uniforms and are using weapons mounted on the backs of pickup trucks, just like the rebels, officials said. That led NATO to mistakenly target a column of rebel vehicles this month.

In the meantime, poorly trained rebel fighters are taking a beating as government troops lob long-range rockets into Misurata, with NATO unable to stop them, rebels say.

“They could do better,” said Abdul Bassett Swaisi, the commander of a rebel unit of about 150 men outside Misurata. “If the situation continues to be like this, it will take years, not months.”

The debates raging in the West and allied Arab states have made untenable the prospect of deploying ground troops to push out Gaddafi.

Military analysts say that matters a great deal.

“There’s no example of regime change occurring by bombing alone,” said Shashank Joshi, an analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a think tank. In Kosovo, he pointed out, where the NATO air campaign was significantly more forceful than it is in Libya, the threat of deploying ground troops was what finally prompted Slobodan Milosevic to surrender.

Although it is difficult to know whether Tripoli residents are being earnest when they speak to Western journalists in the presence of government minders, recent street interviews suggest there is growing anger in the capital about NATO’s campaign.

Abdul Adeem, 44, an electrician who lives near a house leveled after a NATO strike last week, said the bombing campaign has made people rally around Gaddafi.

“All neighbors are afraid,” he said. “They think maybe NATO will do it again tonight.”

Londono reported from Tripoli. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Portia Walker in Misurata contributed to this report.

Washington’s World: June 27th – July 3rd, 2011

The recent foreign policy headlines have focused on President Obama’s statement on Afghanistan and the Congressional attempts to limit US operations in Libya. Of much greater import to US policymakers, however, was the decision to release 60 million barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve. While presented as a response to the shortfall of Libyan production, officials tell us that this was, first, a direct response to the failure of OPEC to raise production quotas at their June 8th meeting and, second, a move to mitigate rising gasoline prices in the US. With the Federal Reserve pointing to a continued soft recovery in the US and threats to the international banking system increasing in Europe, concern is mounting in the White House about Obama’s re-election prospects. This concern was reflected in Obama’s decision about the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan which has drawn statements of disappointment from liberal and conservative analysts alike. The underlying rationale was not, however, a foreign policy one. As a State Department official put it to us: “We know we cannot please the two ends of committed opinion about Afghanistan, so we have tried to split the difference. It is clear, however, that public opinion is losing interest in the war. So we feel that we are safe ground in winding things down.” Electoral considerations will also be in play in the likely September vote in the UN General Assembly on Palestinian statehood. While expert opinion within the Administration remains divided about the substantive wisdom of this matter, lobbying by well-connected domestic interest groups are making the decision more subject to electoral considerations. In the meantime, economic diplomacy will pre-occupy the White House. Obama and his top economic advisers have been applying consistent pressure to their European counterparts to find a solution to the Eurozone banking crisis. A Treasury official commented to us: “Negotiations on the US federal debt ceiling are at a fragile stage. We simply cannot absorb another blow to confidence.”

House rejects Obama’s Libya policy but stops short of trying to cut funding

washington post

By David A. Fahrenthold, Published: June 24

The House on Friday voted to reject President Obama’s introduction of U.S. forces into the conflict in Libya, defeating a resolution that would have officially authorized that operation.

But the House then voted own an even more aggressive rebuke of Obama: a proposal to strip away out part of the funding for the Libyan campaign. The House’s surprising mixed decision could ease congressional pressure on Obama, at least for now.

The two votes highlighted the way that a decade of war has scrambled the politics of foreign policy, and left both parties deeply divided over the Libyan conflict and American warmaking in general.

Even after weeks of debate, on Friday an angry House could not speak with a certain voice.

“I think we sent a message to the president on the first vote,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is tasked with counting his party’s votes. He was downplaying the defeat of the second bill. “The first vote is the vote that matters the most at sending the message today.”

The Obama administration, by contrast, saw a lot to like in the second vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was “gratified that the House decisively rejected” the bill to cut funds. “We need to stand together across party lines and across both branches of government with the Libyan people and with our friends and allies and against Gadhafi,” Clinton said.

The bill to authorize the limited use of force in Libyan was defeated by a vote of 123 to 295. The other bill would have barred money going to offensive operations drone strikes or bombing runs.

But it would have still allowed U.S. forces to perform support duties for the NATO-led operation, like reconnaissance, aerial refueling and search and rescue. It was defeated by a vote of 180 to 238. The “no” votes included 89 Republicans, despite the bill’s endorsement by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The next act in this drama will come next week, when a Senate committee considers its own bill to authorize the Libyan campaign--despite Obama’s assertion that he doesn’t need it.

Then, when the House resumes its session in July, legislators could consider a new measure to cut off all funds for the Libyan operation. That bill could attract considerable attention: several legislators said Friday that they had voted “no” on the bill to strip some funding only because it didn’t go far enough.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said that the rejected bill would still have allowed U.S. forces to play a major role in the operation.

“Let’s not enter a war through the back door,” he said on the House floor, “when we’ve already decided not to enter it through the front.”

But, in the meantime, Obama will be free to continue the operation. Legal experts said they saw history repeating here: Congresses, no matter how mad, have traditionally been very leery of cutting funds for U.S. forces that are already in action.

“It shows Congress’s tendency towards indecision on these kinds of questions,” said Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University. “The White House will look at this as business as usual.”

At the root of this debate is a 1973 law, the War Powers Resolution. It says presidents must obtain congressional authorization after sending U.S. forces into hostilities abroad. Obama says the law doesn’t apply to what’s happening in Libya.

By his logic, the situation in Libya--with U.S. forces mainly in supporting roles, and Gaddafi’s forces so battered they can barely shoot back--does not amount to “hostilities.”

In doing so, Obama managed to bring a surprising degree of unity to a bitterly divided Congress. Republicans and Democrats were outraged together.

“It’s a sad irony that, at the same time that we’re committing our sons and daughters to an armed conflict [in the name of democracy], we are also, here at home, trampling on the fundamental separation of powers,” said Rep. Steven F. Lynch (D-Mass.). “A lawful premise for this Libyan operation does not exist.”

But what to do about it? This question revealed a Congress that has been fractured by a weary decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The over Libya debate showed that some Republicans and Democrats were fixated on moral questions--what is the American responsibility to defend democracy? Others were preoccupied with fiscal ones. How should the national debt affect a foreign policy built on the idea of America “bearing any burden” for freedom?

On Friday, those supporting Obama included liberal stalwarts like Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who said “to cut off funding for the NATO operation is to side with Gaddafi against those who are fighting for the values that define us.”

And they also included Republicans like Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who also worried about the message the House would send by cutting funds.

“The world is watching our actions today. The world is asking, what are we going to do?” Kinzinger said. “Now, will we today pull the rug out from under [Libyan rebels], simply because we have a dispute between the legislative and the executive branch?”

On the other side of the debate, a group of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans urged the House to confront Obama as sharply as it could. Otherwise, they said, Congress would be sidelined from decisions about very costly military operations.

Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the bill to cut funds, authored by Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), would have sent a stern message to Obama--without actually removing U.S. troops from their supporting role in Libya.

“It would not undermine our NATO partners,” Boehner said. “It would, however, prevent the president from carrying out any further hostilities without Congress’s approval . . . I believe this is a responsible approach.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), on the far side of the ideological spectrum from Boehner, said he felt America needed to make a statement that it could not be everywhere, all the time, to defend democracy and fight dictators.

“I believe it is a good thing to get rid of Gaddafi,” Frank said. “But does America have to do everything?”

Military brass cite risks in Obama's Afghan drawdown

Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: June 23, 2011 08:34:02 PM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rejected the U.S military's recommended timeline for pulling 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, opting for a faster, more "aggressive" drawdown of "greater risk," the top U.S. military officer and the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday.

While both Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said they supported Obama's plan, their unusually blunt public comments revealed the fierce debate within the administration and among lawmakers of both parties over Obama's decision to withdraw the 33,000 troops by the end of next summer.

Some Republicans warned that Obama's plan would endanger hard-fought gains against the Taliban-led insurgency, while some joined Democrats in complaining that the pace of the drawdown, which begins with a 10,000-troop reduction this year, is too slow.

Obama denied during a visit to troops at Fort Drum, N.Y., that he was reducing forces "precipitously."

Speaking to soldiers and officers of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most heavily deployed Army contingents in the nearly decade-long conflict, Obama said the drawdown would be made "in a steady way to make sure that all of the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained."

The 33,000 troops were sent last year under a "surge" that Obama announced in a December 2009 war strategy speech in which he pledged to start withdrawing U.S. forces from the country's longest war next month. Their departure would still leave some 68,000 U.S. soldiers, most of whom would be gone by the end of 2014.

Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee that the pace and scale of the drawdown that Obama announced on Wednesday in a nationally televised address are "more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept."

Hours later, Petraeus echoed Mullen as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing be the new CIA director.

Obama decided "on a more aggressive formulation in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended," Petraeus replied to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel's chairman.

He later elaborated, saying that "what that means, in, of course, soldier shorthand, commander shorthand, is . . . that we assess that there is a greater risk . . . to the accomplishment of the various objectives of the campaign plan. It doesn't mean they can't be achieved."

He said that he, Mullen and Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, recommended that the 33,000 troops, most of who deployed into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, remain until the end of 2012, he said.

Petraeus said he would return to Kabul on Friday to complete planning for the more rapid drawdown, including ensuring that there would be sufficient Afghan security forces to take over areas from which U.S. troops would be withdrawn.

Mullen and Petraeus separately stressed that Obama had to weigh other factors and viewpoints in making his decision — they declined to go into details — and both said they'd endorsed it.

"Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so," Mullen said. "Ultimately the decision has to be made and . . . ultimately I support it."

A U.S. defense official said that Obama's decision was a "compromise" brokered by retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates between the military's recommendation and a proposal pushed by unnamed White House aides for all 33,000 troops to be out by next spring.

Vice President Joe Biden and some other administration officials reportedly pressed for a more rapid withdrawal, concerned about the strain of the war on the federal budget, the flagging domestic economy, growing popular opposition to the decade-old conflict and Obama's re-election prospects.

Pressure on Obama to disengage from Afghanistan also has risen significantly since U.S. Navy SEALs killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in a May 2 raid on his hideout near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

"I was hopeful that 33,000 could be more out this year," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan.

But some U.S. officials and commanders and other experts are deeply concerned that conditions in Afghanistan remain grave, with violence and casualties at record highs and Afghan security forces plagued by serious problems, including illiteracy and high desertion rates.

"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," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asserted in a Senate floor speech.

Moreover, experts note that the cooperation of Pakistan, where the leadership of the Taliban and allied groups are based, is essential in helping bring about negotiations on a political settlement to the war. But they also point out that relations are at an all-time low between the U.S. and Pakistan, which remains enraged and humiliated over being kept in the dark about the raid that killed bin Laden.

Even so, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration thinks "a political solution" to the war "is possible."

She confirmed that U.S. officials have had "very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban," which she said was "not a pleasant business." But, she added, insurgencies historically end through a combination of military pressure and political negotiations.

Clinton was apparently referring to at least three meetings that a senior U.S. diplomat has held with Tayyeb Agha, a former personal assistant to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader who is believed to be living in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

U.S. officials, however, have indicated that there has been no apparent progress toward convening negotiations on peace agreement, and serious questions remain about how much influence Agha still wields with Omar and his leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura.

"We're a long way from knowing what the realistic elements of such an agreement would be," Clinton acknowledged.


Obama Will Speed Pullout From War in Afghanistan

June 22, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama declared Wednesday that the United States had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan, setting in motion a substantial withdrawal of American troops in an acknowledgment of the shifting threat in the region and the fast-changing political and economic landscape in a war-weary America.

Asserting that the country that served as a base for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks no longer represented a terrorist threat to the United States, Mr. Obama declared that the “tide of war is receding.” And in a blunt recognition of domestic economic strains, he said, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

Mr. Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 “surge” of forces would leave by next summer, amounting to about a third of the 100,000 troops now in the country. He said the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace” until the United States handed over security to the Afghan authorities in 2014.

The troop reductions, which were decided after a short but fierce internal debate, will be both deeper and faster than the recommendations made by Mr. Obama’s military commanders, and they will come as the president faces relentless budget pressures, an increasingly restive American public and a re-election campaign next year.

Only hours after Mr. Obama spoke, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said on Thursday that he would also begin drawing down the 4,000-strong French contingent in Afghanistan.

”Given the progress we have seen, France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a statement issued by his office, Reuters reported.

Mr. Obama, speaking in businesslike tones during a 15-minute address from the East Room of the White House, talked of ending America’s longest war and of the painful lessons he thought could be taken from it. While justifying the nation’s decade-long commitment, he talked of “ending the war responsibly” and warned of the perils of overextending the military by sending large numbers of soldiers into combat. He acknowledged that huge challenges remained before an end to the conflict that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and 1,500 American lives.

The withdrawals would begin winding down the military’s counterinsurgency strategy, which Mr. Obama adopted 18 months ago. Administration officials indicated that they now planned to place more emphasis on focused clandestine counterterrorism operations of the kind that killed Osama bin Laden, which the president cited as Exhibit A in the case for a substantial American troop reduction.

“We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” Mr. Obama said. “Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11.” He said that an intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan had crippled Al Qaeda’s original network in the region, leaving its leaders either dead or pinned down in the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of 30 top Qaeda leaders identified by American intelligence, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, administration officials said.

But the withdrawal of the entire surge force by the end of next summer will significantly change the way that the United States wages war in Afghanistan, analysts said, suggesting that the administration may have concluded it can no longer achieve its loftiest ambitions there.

Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in his remarks. “We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,” he said. “We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”

Mr. Obama’s decision is a victory for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long argued for curtailing the military operation in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama indicated a willingness to move toward more focused covert operations of the type that the United States is conducting in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. “When threatened, we must respond with force,” he said. “But when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”

The pace of the withdrawal is a setback for the president’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has been named director of the Central Intelligence Agency. General Petraeus did not endorse the decision, said another official. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates argued publicly against a too-hasty withdrawal of troops, but he said in a statement on Wednesday that he supported Mr. Obama’s decision.

During the internal debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed reservations about the scale of the reductions, officials said.

General Petraeus had recommended limiting withdrawals to 5,000 troops this year and another 5,000 over the winter.

He and other military commanders argued that the 18 months since Mr. Obama announced the troop increase did not allow for enough time for the Americans to consolidate the fragile gains that they had made in Helmand and other provinces.

But troops have succeeded in clearing many towns and cities of insurgents, and then keeping them safe so that markets were able to reopen and girls could go to school, for example.

Military officials say the withdrawal of American troops will impose limits on which areas of the country can be pacified. In particular, plans to pivot extra American troops from south and southwestern Afghanistan to volatile areas in the east, along the Pakistan border, will be curtailed or even canceled, officials said.

The effort to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces remains elusive because the Afghan troops are proving unprepared for the job. Corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai continues to be rampant, sapping the confidence of many Afghans.

Still, the growing disenchantment in the United States with the war, particularly given the ballooning national debt, the country’s slow economic recovery and the whopping $120 billion price tag of the Afghan conflict this year alone, were all considerations weighed by the president. “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource: our people.”

Republican presidential candidates including Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr. are demanding a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Democrats complain that the cost of the war is siphoning money away from efforts to create jobs in the United States. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, called on Mr. Obama to speed the withdrawal. “If we’re going to leave, we should leave,” he said in a statement. “The centralized system of government foisted upon the Afghan people is not going to hold after we leave. So let’s quit prolonging the agony and the inevitable.”

Highlighting the unusual political splits the war is causing, other Republicans criticized the president for pulling out too soon. Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that Mr. Obama was playing politics with the troop reduction, saying, “The president is trying to find a political solution with a military component, when it needs to be the other way around.” He said the situation in Afghanistan was “very precarious,” and that the White House seemed to be panicking about the levels of violence.

Mr. Obama’s speech, delivered at dawn on Thursday, Kabul time, is expected to be the subject of a speech by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, scheduled for later in the day. Senior figures in Mr. Karzai’s administration began signaling that they were comfortable with the withdrawal of 10,000 troops by year’s end.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the Afghan National Army “has this capability and quantity to fill the gap of those places where the foreign troops withdraw and leave Afghanistan.”

“We are ready,” General Azimi said.

Muhammad Siddique Aziz, an adviser to Mr. Karzai on tribal affairs, said the withdrawal plan was acceptable, but he warned against a complete withdrawal of American troops before the Afghan government was strong enough to administer the country on its own. “I think they have to concentrate more on the Afghan government so when they leave, the government can stand up on its own,” Mr. Aziz said.

Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.

The radicalization of Pakistan’s military

washington post
By Fareed Zakaria, Published: June 23

Whatever their strength, American troops will not determine success in Afghanistan. Nor will the newly formed Afghan National Army. As U.S. forces are gradually withdrawn over the next three years, it is Pakistan’s 600,000-strong army that will become the dominant military force in the region and will try to shape its future. But that military is undergoing a deep internal crisis of identity, its most serious since Pakistan’s founding in 1947. How it resolves this crisis will determine its future, the future of the Afghan war — and much else.

This week’s news that a Pakistani brigadier general has been arrested for his ties to a radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, is only the latest in series of events that have rocked that nation. In the past year, two senior Pakistani officials have been gunned down, one by his own security guard. Last month, well-armed militants attacked a key naval base in Karachi, an operation that required inside assistance. Also last month, a brave Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, who detailed the growing extremist presence within the Pakistani military, was tortured and killed, almost certainly by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (which denied the allegation). And then there is the case of Osama bin Laden, who was for years comfortably ensconced in an army town.

Pakistan’s military has traditionally been seen as a secular and disciplined organization. But the evidence is now overwhelming that it has been infiltrated at all levels by violent Islamists, including Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers.

There is also strong evidence of a basic shift in the attitude of the Pakistani military. Last month, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, was invited to speak at the country’s National Defense University. Addressing a large gathering of officers, Haqqani asked the audience, “What is the principal national security threat to Pakistan?” He offered three categories: “from within [Pakistan],” “India,” and, “the United States.” A plurality voted for the third option.

The vote is consistent with a WikiLeaks document, a 2008 cable from Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, expressing shock at the rising levels of anti-Americanism in the next generation of leaders of Pakistan’s military elite. Last November, Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, described a military briefing in which a senior military officer explained to a handful of top columnists that the Pakistani military viewed the United States as a hostile force trying to perpetuate a state of “controlled chaos” in Pakistan and determined to “denuclearize” the regime.

Islamist ideology is replacing strategy. For 60 years, Pakistan’s military has focused obsessively on its rivalry with India. Large elements within that military appear to be switching obsessions, and the United States is replacing India as the organizing principle around which Pakistan’s military understands its national security interests. If this happens, not only is the Afghan war lost but Pakistan itself is also lost. (It does not have that far to fall; it made its annual appearance this year on Foreign Policy magazine’s “Failed States” list, coming in 12th, above Yemen.)

Ambassador Haqqani explained to his audience, “If [the threat] really comes from the United States then we’ve already lost, ladies and gentlemen, because you can’t beat the United States in a military confrontation. . . . [L]et us be honest, we do not have the means to take on the one military power in the world that spends more on defense technology than the next 20 nations in the world. So that is where I think we sometimes end up having what I call an ‘emotional discussion.’ ” Haqqani was gently pointing out the incoherence of these attitudes, but they persist.

It’s more than emotional. It is an indication that radical Islamist ideas — with America as the great Satan — are now reflexive for many in Pakistan’s military.

After the bin Laden raid, Pakistan’s military dispatched Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani to Beijing to try to cozy up to the Chinese. “We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” said Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defense minister, and Gillani returned claiming triumphantly that he had secured the deal. The Chinese, however, were too savvy to play this anti-American game and humiliated the Pakistanis by publicly contradicting the story.

Pakistan is drifting into a strategic black hole. Does the country really think its best path forward is as an adversary of the United States, currying favor with militants and becoming a vassal of China? Are its role models North Korea and Burma? Or does it want to crush the jihadist movements that are destroying the country, join the global economy, reform its society and become a real democracy? These are the questions Pakistan has to ask itself. The United States, for its part, having disbursed $20 billion in aid to Pakistan in the past decade — most of it to the military — needs to ask some questions of its own.

With Afghan withdrawal, US focus turns to Pakistan

By SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press – 1 day ago
ISLAMABAD (AP) — As the U.S. looks ahead to its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, even more attention is being directed toward Pakistan, where Obama administration officials say al-Qaida and its allies are still plotting attacks against the West.
They argue that threat has been effectively neutralized in Afghanistan, a key justification for President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. will withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because al-Qaida used it as the base to launch the 9/11 attacks.
Afghanistan could take on new significance for the U.S. as a base to launch unilateral strikes against militants inside neighboring Pakistan, an unstable nuclear-armed country that many analysts say is more strategically important than Afghanistan.
That future has become more likely as the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. has deteriorated following the American raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden not far from the Pakistani capital last month. The operation humiliated Pakistan, which cut back on counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., a popular move in a country where anti-American sentiment is rife.
"We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years," said a senior administration official in a briefing given to reporters in Washington before Obama's speech. "The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer."
One of the most high-profile attempted attacks against the U.S. homeland coming from Pakistan recently was by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square last year. He allegedly traveled to Pakistan's tribal areas and coordinated his attack with the Pakistani Taliban.
Since Pakistan effectively prohibits American troops inside the country and has been a reluctant ally in targeting militants the U.S. deems a threat, Washington has increasingly relied on covert CIA drone missile strikes to target al-Qaida and Taliban fighters holed up in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan.
The U.S. refuses to acknowledge the drone program in Pakistan, but Obama alluded to its effectiveness in his speech, saying "together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al-Qaida's leadership."
But the future of the drone program in Pakistan could be threatened by pervasive anti-American sentiment and anger over the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2.
The drones are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, and lawmakers took the opportunity to demand the government, which is widely believed to allow the drones to take off from bases inside the country, halt the program.
That demand found resonance with Pakistanis, nearly 70 percent of whom view the U.S. as an enemy despite billions of dollars in American aid, according to a recent poll conducted after the bin Laden raid by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. Only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of the U.S., according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
If Pakistan were to prevent drones from taking off from inside the country, the U.S. would have to launch them from Afghanistan, an act that would further increase tensions in the region, said Riffat Hussain, a defense professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
"The staging area would then become Afghanistan, which would be totally anathema to Pakistan because then you are using another country's territory for attacks against Pakistan," Hussain said. "That will not only escalate tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it means America has declared war on Pakistan."
The U.S. has also made it clear that if it obtains intelligence on future high-value terrorist targets inside Pakistan, it could stage special forces attacks from Afghanistan like the one that killed bin Laden.
The raid infuriated Pakistan because the government wasn't told of it beforehand. U.S. officials have said they kept the Pakistanis in the dark because they were worried that bin Laden would be tipped off by extremist sympathizers in the Pakistani military.
Pakistan responded to the raid by kicking out more than 100 U.S. troops training Pakistanis in counterterrorism operations and reduced the level of intelligence cooperation — something that could make it more difficult for the U.S. to target militants in the country.
One of the primary causes of U.S. frustration with Pakistan is its unwillingness to target Afghan Taliban militants and their allies in the country who launch cross-border attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan says its troops are stretched too thin by other operations, but many analysts believe the government is reluctant to attack groups with which it has historical ties and could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Hussain, the defense professor, said the beginning of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Obama's admission that the U.S. would support reconciliation talks with the Taliban made it even less likely that Pakistan would target militants deemed a threat by Washington.
"If you are talking to the Taliban, then you can't expect Pakistan to go after them," Hussain said.
Obama said he would press Pakistan to tackle the militant threat inside the country, but also implied the U.S. would not hesitate to go it alone when its security was endangered.
"For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us," Obama said.

Mullen Sees Risk in Obama's Afghanistan Withdrawal

By MATTHEW LEE and ROBERT BURNS Associated Press
WASHINGTON June 23, 2011 (AP)

President Barack Obama delivers a televised address from the East Room of the White House in Washington on June 22, 2011 on his plan to withdraw U.S. troops in Afghanistan. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

The nation's top military officer and its top diplomat made clear Thursday that President Barack 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 U.S. 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.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 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.

On Thursday, 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.


Petraeus Says Afghan Pullout Is Beyond What He Advised

June 23, 2011

WASHINGTON — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said Thursday that President Obama’s new schedule for drawing down forces there was “more aggressive” than he had recommended and increased the risk that the military would not meet all its goals.

But General Petraeus, pressed for his personal views at a Senate hearing on his nomination as director of central intelligence, said the president had to consider many factors beyond the battlefield and that he fully accepted Mr. Obama’s plan. It would bring home 33,000 troops by September 2012 and withdraw the remaining 68,000 by the end of 2014.

“There are broader considerations beyond those just of a military commander,” General Petraeus told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The commander in chief has decided, and it is then the responsibility, needless to say, of those in uniform to salute smartly and to do everything humanly possible to execute it.”

He said he had received some e-mails suggesting that he resign if he disagreed with the president’s decision, which would require troops to depart before the end of next year’s fighting season. “I’m not a quitter,” he said, noting that the troops under his command do not have the option of walking off the job, and that a general should take such a step only in a “dire” situation.

The general’s comments echoed those earlier in the day of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, about the military’s preference for a slower withdrawal. But Admiral Mullen added, “No commander ever wants to sacrifice fighting power in the middle of a war.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who other officials said had also expressed concern about the speed of the withdrawal, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Mr. Obama’s decision had followed “a very open, candid discussion within the national security team” in which “people forthrightly presented their own views.”

She said the United States was able to withdraw the troops from “a position of strength” because of the progress that had been made. She cited a large increase in school enrollment — from 900,000 boys under the Taliban to more than seven million children today, 40 percent of them girls — and a 22 percent decrease in infant mortality.

“Despite the many challenges that remain,” she said, “life is better for most Afghans.”

As his aides defended his decision in Washington, Mr. Obama traveled to Fort Drum, N.Y., to meet with about 200 members of the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, briefly addressing soldiers before posing for photographs and shaking hands.

“Now, last night, I gave a speech in which I said that we have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re not doing it precipitously. 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 added, “Because of you, we’re now taking the fight to the Taliban instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to us.”

As Mr. Obama’s nominee to take over the C.I.A., General Petraeus faced the Senate panel in an awkward position: he is the leading champion of a counterinsurgency strategy, which requires large numbers of troops, from which the White House is gradually turning away.

Yet in moving to the C.I.A., he will take command of the spy agency that has become central to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts, carrying out hundreds of missile strikes from unmanned drone aircraft over Pakistan. Administration officials have hailed the drone program’s achievements in weakening Al Qaeda as part of the justification for drawing down troops in Afghanistan.

Because the drone program remains classified, it was barely discussed at the hearing. One of the few surprises in three hours of testimony came when Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said he wanted to discuss drones.

There was a hush as aides and senators whispered about the potential security breach. General Petraeus then answered by reference to the military’s drone strikes in Afghanistan, which are not classified.

General Petraeus, who is expected to win Senate confirmation easily, would take over the C.I.A. at a time of close collaboration between the spy agency and the Pentagon, so close that some have raised concerns about the blurring boundaries between soldiers and spies.

He pledged that he would maintain “relentless pressure” on Al Qaeda as C.I.A. director, continuing close collaboration between the agency and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the raid last month that killed Osama bin Laden.

“Needless to say, support for ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as for missions in other locations such as Yemen, Iraq, and parts of Africa, will remain critical,” he said.

He addressed head-on concerns that have been raised about his move to the spy agency, including the worry that he will be in the position of “grading his own work” in shaping C.I.A. assessments of conditions in Afghanistan.

He conceded that twice in recent years he offered more optimistic assessments about Iraq and Afghanistan than those of the C.I.A., but he said that on two other occasions he had offered a bleaker view than those of civilian intelligence analysts. “My goal has been to speak truth to power,” he said.

Some experts have questioned whether his career ascending through the military’s rigid hierarchy makes him ill equipped to run a spy agency populated by eccentrics who resent authority and bristle at direct orders. His time at Princeton earning a doctorate, General Petraeus assured the senators, made him comfortable with “vigorous debate and discussion.”

He went out of his way to praise the “quiet professionals and unsung heroes” of the C.I.A. and said he would work to defuse any resentment of his military background. He said he would formally retire from the military before arriving at C.I.A. headquarters, would not bring his military aides to the agency and would make a point of eating lunch in the cafeteria and soliciting the opinions of rank-and-file analysts.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, praised General Petraeus’s letter to American forces in Iraq in 2007 directing them to uphold American values by treating prisoners humanely. At the time, the letter was interpreted by some as implicitly critical of the C.I.A.’s earlier use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods, in a program now under criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

But General Petraeus said he wanted to be an “advocate” for the agency and that it was “time to take the rear-view mirrors off the bus” and stop rehashing the debate over torture, a position also taken by Leon Panetta, who is stepping down as C.I.A. director to become secretary of defense.

“I, as the potential leader of the agency, would like us to focus forward,” General Petraeus said.

Thom Shanker, Steven Lee Myers and Jackie Calmes contributed reporting.

Gates sees shifts in Afghanistan strategy

By Jim Michaels - USA Today
Posted : Monday Jun 27, 2011 5:38:35 EDT
WASHINGTON — The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will gradually shift in the direction of counterterrorism, which is limited primarily to targeting militant leaders, as force levels are reduced, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview.

But Gates said the strategy would still remain a combination of both counterinsurgency, a labor intensive mission that requires protecting the civilian population, and counterterrorism, even as the balance begins shifting.
"When you get into late 2012, 2013, it's clear that the balance, as we turn more and more responsibility over to the Afghans ... that our role will increasingly be kind of an overwatch role and a higher weighting on the counterterrorism," Gates said.

President Obama announced last week a plan to reduce U.S. troop levels by 10,000 this year and another 23,000 by the end of the summer of 2012.

Some in the administration, including Vice President Biden, had argued for a more abrupt shift toward counterterrorism when the administration first began debating its Afghanistan strategy.

Instead, Obama in 2009 had decided on a plan to surge 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan in an effort to seize the initiative from the Taliban. Since then, the Pentagon said it has made remarkable progress in driving insurgents from strongholds in the south.

Much of that progress was a result of thousands of U.S. troops pouring into southern Afghanistan, at times engaging in pitched battles with Taliban militants.

"Al-Qaeda is on their heels, and the Taliban's momentum in the south has been checked," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week after Obama announced his plan.

The Pentagon has been planning on a diminished military presence for some time. Gates said the president had committed to leaving the surge forces in place between 18 and 24 months. All U.S. combat forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by 2014.

"The shift was inevitable regardless," Gates said. "The question is whether it's accelerated by coming out at the end of September instead of December. It's only four months. My suspicion is that in that time frame it probably does not require significant change."

Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said that drawing down forces in September will remove combat power in the middle of the fighting season and could jeopardize the progress already made. Taliban fighters generally retreat to sanctuaries to rest when snows and cold weather make movement difficult.

Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an interview last week that the military situation in Afghanistan is too precarious to warrant a drawdown.

Gates said the strategy and tactics will remain "fluid," as forces are reduced. Tactics will vary depending on the region and security conditions, he said.

Gates described it as "a gradual shift that will really depend on what part of the country you're in.

"There may be one part of the country where we are in an overwatch position and not much engaged in fighting, another part where we are heavily engaged in counterterrorism and another part where we're still in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency," said Gates, who is stepping down as Defense secretary Thursday.

Counterinsurgency tactics are aimed at protecting the population, a job that increasingly will fall to Afghan police and soldiers. When villages and towns are secured, militants grow isolated and have no support among the population. The number of Afghan security forces has grown to 290,000.

"The nature of the mission by 2013 will clearly be shifting as we transfer more and more responsibility to the Afghans," Gates said.


Obama’s Growing Trust in Biden Is Reflected in His Call on Troops

June 24, 2011

WASHINGTON — As President Obama began mulling his next big decision on troop levels in Afghanistan last January, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. quietly flew to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and tour the battlefield with the top American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

At a military base in Wardak Province, where the Taliban continue to pose a security threat, Mr. Biden listened with bewilderment as an American civilian told him about plans to dig a well in a nearby village. “Why do they need a well?” he asked, according to a person who was there.

Convinced he was seeing mission creep, Mr. Biden came home and pressed the president on a point he had making since the first troop debate in 2009: the United States needed to stop nation-building in Afghanistan. The military, he argued, was going beyond Mr. Obama’s goals of defeating Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from toppling the Afghan government and improving security.

In ordering the withdrawal of 30,000 troops by next summer, Mr. Obama finally sided with Mr. Biden. While the decision has drawn criticism from those who say it is a rush for the exits, it shows the growing trust the president has placed in his vice president — an outcome many would not have predicted when Mr. Obama chose the garrulous senator, now 68, as his running mate.

“They began as friendly rivals,” said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama, recalling the primary. “But the relationship has been forged in the fires of many tests. There’s a real bond between them.”

The two men often spend several hours a day together when both are in town, in addition to a weekly one-on-one lunch, and officials say Mr. Biden is almost always the last person in the room with the president.

Mr. Biden’s decision not to ask for a dedicated portfolio of issues, as Vice President Al Gore did under President Bill Clinton, prompted skeptics to predict he would lack influence. But Mr. Biden has become the president’s chief troubleshooter, shepherding a stalled arms-reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate, for example. He has also been his point person on issues ranging from Iraq to budget negotiations with Congress, which collapsed this week over disagreements about taxes and spending cuts.

As the budget impasse shows, Mr. Biden’s role has limits. After Republican negotiators pulled out of the talks, party leaders suggested that Mr. Biden could no longer function as Mr. Obama’s proxy. On Friday, the White House announced that the president would join him in discussions with Congressional leaders next week.

While Mr. Biden has overcome his reputation for gaffes and administration officials no longer roll their eyes at his loquaciousness, his public statements still go further than those of his buttoned-down boss.

The vice president declined to be interviewed for this article. But some officials worried that the perception of a Biden victory on the Afghanistan strategy could worsen tensions in an administration that prefers to present a united front.

Both Pentagon and State Department officials had warned that a swift troop reduction could jeopardize gains in stabilizing parts of the country and prevent the military from securing other volatile regions. And the plan has already prompted NATO allies to hasten their own exit.

Moreover, some question the viability of Mr. Biden’s ultimate vision for Afghanistan, in which the United States would leave behind only a force large enough to secure American bases for counterterrorism operations there and in Pakistan.

“Biden is calling for a clear transition to Fortress Kabul,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who led the administration’s initial Afghan review in early 2009. “But that perspective has never gotten any traction with the Pentagon. They view it as an unending mission with no chance of success.”

The last time Mr. Obama deliberated over troop levels, in late 2009, the vice president argued just as vociferously for a minimalist approach. The president, though, sided with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom favored sending at least 30,000 additional troops.

Mr. Obama, however, attached a deadline of 18 to 24 months, and Mr. Biden paid close watch. “He’s an aggressive enforcer of the president’s goals and vision,” said Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

While the vice president energetically promoted the administration’s policy, he also privately kept voicing his deep skepticism of attempts to transform Afghanistan, several officials said. During recent debates over the withdrawal timetable, he pushed to bring back the troops at the earliest possible date, next April, according to officials, and countered arguments by Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton to leave a large part of the additional troops in place until the end of 2012.

Mr. Biden’s hand was strengthened by other factors, including chronic tensions with the government of President Karzai and the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which lent support to his argument that the United States could combat Al Qaeda with focused covert operations rather than a major troop deployment.

A devout Catholic, Mr. Biden fingered a rosary ring in the White House Situation Room during the raid. When he tucked it away in his wallet, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, jokingly suggested that might be premature, gesturing to the rosary ring that he had pulled out of his own pocket, according to an aide.

In internal debates, officials said, Mr. Biden has consistently expressed doubts about the public’s appetite for an endless war. “The vice president always does a good job of bringing America into the room,” said David Plouffe, a senior political adviser.

With Americans struggling in a still-weak economy, Congress worried about the huge deficit and the president facing a re-election campaign, Mr. Biden is being tapped to reassure the country that the military commitment is limited.

On Thursday, the White House released a video in which he talked about the need to shift to the home front.

“By winding down these wars and bringing home these troops, we will free up significant resources — resources we can reinvest at home,” he declared.

With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan, even after next year, Mr. Biden dismisses the argument that the United States is rushing for the exits, officials familiar with his thinking said. He also believes that American troops can conduct counterterrorism operations from there “indefinitely.”

Such a calculation is risky. Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff, recalling the vice president’s recommendation to push for the passage of an arms treaty through a hostile Senate, against the advice of other White House officials, said: “He has this quality where he is willing to take chances.”

Obama gave commanders leeway on July pullout

Military Times
By Robert Burns - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Jun 26, 2011 14:45:58 EDT

WASHINGTON — In promising a U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan will begin in July, President Obama is permitting his commanders to decide critical details, including the number of troops to depart first and whether any of those will be combat forces, administration and military officials said Sunday.

Providing that leeway is important to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. It allows him to pace this year’s phase of the withdrawal in a way that preserves combat power through the end of the traditional fighting season in October or November.

Obama said in a national address Wednesday that he was ordering 10,000 troops home by year’s end; as many as 23,000 more are to leave by September 2012.
The 33,000 total is the number that Obama sent as reinforcements in December 2009 as part of an effort to reverse the moment of the Taliban and hasten an eventual political settlement of the conflict. The U.S. and its allies plan a full combat withdrawal by the end of 2014.

“Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year,” Obama told the nation last week.

He did not say how many would leave in July.

In congressional testimony Thursday, neither Petraeus nor Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided details on what the July pullout would look like.

Petraeus, who is leaving his post this summer, said he was returning to Kabul to work out details of how he will fulfill the order to reduce by 10,000 by year’s end and by an additional 23,000 next year.

There currently are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Mullen indicated that Obama was giving commanders wide latitude to shape the withdrawal, so long as they meet the president’s broad timelines.

Petraeus and his designated successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, “will be given the flexibility — inside these deadlines — to determine the pace of this withdrawal and the rearrangement of remaining forces inside the country,” Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee.

Allen’s Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Other administration and military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Obama has left it to Petraeus to determine exactly how big a reduction to make in July and whether they include combat forces, so long as the drawdown reaches 10,000 by year’s end. Those officials said it was agreed that no reductions in July was not an option.

Through his spokesman in Kabul, Petraeus on Sunday declined to discuss the subject of how the July phase of the withdrawal will be executed.

Petraeus, in line to be CIA director, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that Obama chose a faster-paced troop withdrawal than Petraeus had recommended. But Petraeus said it was understandable that Obama had weighed more than strictly military factors, and that Petraeus supported the decision.

Obama’s troop withdrawal plan came under first Sunday from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

Rogers said he thinks the president shaped his plan mainly to fit the needs of his 2012 re-election campaign rather than the needs of commanders in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately I think this was more written by the political shop than by the Pentagon,” Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

In an interview on the same program, the top House Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, acknowledged that domestic presidential politics played a role. She said he had hoped that Democrats who comprise Obama’s base of political support would have some influence over his Afghan war decision.

“And I think they have,” she said. “The president has taken out more troops than some others wanted him to.”

One element of the July troop drawdown is set in motion.

Petraeus decided this month that two battalions of an Oklahoma Army National Guard infantry brigade that had been scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in July to perform security duties would go to Kuwait instead. When the two battalions that those 800 soldiers would have replaced in Afghanistan go home in July, the total U.S. presence will drop by that amount.

It’s not known whether Petraeus intends to make other July reductions.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said while visiting Afghanistan in early June that he expected the first withdrawals to include a mix of combat and support troops.

War game shows how attacking Iran could backfire

War game shows how attacking Iran could backfire

By Warren P. Strobel | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Here's a war game involving Iran, Israel and the U.S. that shows how unintended consequences can spin out of control:

With diplomacy failing and precious intelligence just received about two new secret Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against Tehran's nuclear complex. The strike is successful, wiping out six of Iran's key sites and setting back its suspected quest for a bomb by years.

But what happens next isn't pretty.

The U.S. president and his National Security Council try to keep the crisis from escalating. That sours U.S.-Israeli relations, already stressed by the fact that Israel didn't inform Washington in advance of the strike. The White House tries to open a channel for talks with Iran, but is rejected.

Instead, Iran attacks Israel, both directly and through its proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. It misinterprets U.S. actions as weakness and mines the Straits of Hormuz, the world's chief oil artery. That sparks a clash and a massive U.S. military reinforcement in the Persian Gulf.

This recent war game conducted at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, part of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, appears to dampen hopes for a simple solution to Iran's real-world nuclear challenge.

The lesson is "once you start this, it's really hard to stop it," said Kenneth Pollack, a former White House and CIA official who oversaw the simulation.

Pollack and others who participated in the day-long exercise late last year are quick to point out that war games are imperfect mirrors of reality. How Iran's notoriously opaque and fractious leadership would react in a real crisis is particularly hard to divine.

But the outcome underscores what diplomats, military officers and analysts have long said: even a "successful" airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities — setting the program back by two to four years — could come at a tremendous, unpredictable cost.

"It's ... an option that has to be looked at very, very, very carefully," a senior European diplomat said Friday. "Because we know what the results could be, and they could be disastrous." He requested anonymity to speak more frankly on the sensitive issue.

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program rose again this week after the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog reported that the country could be secretly developing a nuclear warhead to be placed atop a ballistic missile. Additionally, Iran has begun enriching uranium closer to the purity level needed for use in a nuclear weapon.

Israel, which sees Iran as a direct threat, has refused to rule out military force, although officials there say they are counting for now on diplomatic pressure. There have even been hints from Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, that they would look the other way in the event of a strike on Shiite Iran, a historic adversary.

Yet one of the Brookings war game's major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.

By the end of the simulation, eight days after the fictitious Israeli strike, Israel's prime minister, under heavy domestic pressure, is forced to launch a 48-hour air blitz in southern Lebanon to halt rocket attacks from Hezbollah, the militant group sponsored by Iran. Israeli officials know the blitz is unlikely to achieve its objectives, and prepare a larger, costlier operation in Lebanon, including ground forces.

Israel's relations with the United States, its most important ally, are damaged. To avoid damaging them further, Israel bows to intense U.S. pressure and absorbs occasional missile strikes from Iran without retaliating.

Some members of the "Israeli" team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran's nuclear program "was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response," said one participant. He asked that his name not be used, because under the game's ground rules, participants are supposed to remain anonymous.

Jonathan Peled, an Israeli embassy spokesman, declined comment on the war game or its outcome.

"All we can say is that Iran constitutes a threat not only to Israel but to the region, to the US and to the world at large, and therefore should be addressed without delay by the international community, first and foremost through effective sanctions," he said.

The Brookings war game was one of three simulations regarding Iran's nuclear program conducted in December. The other two, at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University, reportedly found that neither sanctions nor threats dissuaded Tehran from its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.

In the Brookings game, three teams of experts, including former senior U.S. officials, played the Israeli, Iranian and American leadership. They assembled in separate rooms at the think tank's Washington headquarters. Israeli and U.S. "officials" communicated with each other, but not with the Iranians.

One of the simulation's major findings was how aggressively the Iranians responded to the attack — more aggressively, some participants felt, than they would in real life — and how Washington and Tehran, lacking direct communication, misunderstood each other.

Iran did not retaliate directly against the United States or U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it struck back at Israel, then attacked Dharan in eastern Saudi Arabia, then began mining the Straits of Hormuz.

"There would be almost no incentive for Iran not to respond" with force, said another participant, a member of the Iranian team. "It was interesting to see how useful it was for Tehran to push the limits."

Without knowing it, Iran's last two actions crossed U.S. "red lines," prompting an American military response.

"No one came out on top — (but) arguably the Iranians," the Iran team member said.

The Tehran regime was also able to crush its domestic political opposition.

Read more: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/02/21/87061/war-game-shows-how-attacking-iran.html#ixzz1Qf0DfyIl

Obama’s Afghanistan plan gets mixed reviews from grunts at Fort Campbell

Wasgington Post
By Kevin Sieff, Monday, June 27, 3:31 AM

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Pfc. Rob Nunez was gulping Miller Lite from a plastic cup when the subject of President Obama’s plan for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan came up: 10,000 troops were being pulled out this year, said a friend at a roadside bar on the fringes of the Fort Campbell Army base. The rest of the 33,000 “surge” troops would leave in 2012.

Nunez swallowed his beer, let out a stream of profanity before landing on a sentence that he repeats a lot these days. “It’s worthless, and it’s never going to end.”

He had just returned from one of the war’s most terrifying corners to a base that has shouldered much of the U.S. troop surge. In the past 18 months, more than 20,000 Fort Campbell soldiers have cycled through Afghanistan; 131 have been killed.

Nunez, 21, who spent about a year in Konar province near the Pakistani border, cared little that the commander in chief had declared Wednesday night that the “tide of war is receding.” He and his friends, some of the country’s youngest war veterans, have little interest in military policy anymore. Not after Konar.

The last mission is what did it. Nunez’s regiment fought for days in early April to win control of a remote valley called Barawala Kalay. Six U.S. soldiers died, and Nunez still can’t figure out why he wasn’t one of them. Bullets came from nowhere, hitting everything but his flesh.

“It was like fighting ghosts,” he said.

When Obama outlined the beginning of the end of America’s longest war — a phased withdrawal, a handoff to Afghan security forces, negotiations with the Taliban — television screens lit up at the base. In the strip of towns orbiting Fort Campbell, the 100,000-acre base straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, reactions came quickly. The withdrawal was too slow, or too fast, or right on the money, depending on the soldier.

Nunez, and many of the men he fought with in Konar, had no interest in joining that debate. When Obama stood in the White House’s East Room, they played video games, watched the College World Series or slept. Nunez, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed soldier from Southern California, went to the gym.

He had joined the Army in 2008, ready to see what war was like after talking to friends who had returned from Iraq. But when he enlisted, resources began shifting. Fort Campbell found itself at the crossroads of two wars, and not much later, Nunez found himself in Konar.

When Obama announced that he was adding 30,000 troops to the effort in Afghanistan — the surge ended up deploying 33,000 — U.S. commanders chose not to send any of them to Konar, a remote and violent area. Instead, commanders focused on pacifying larger population centers in the south.

But as insurgents flourished in valleys near Pakistan, brigades from Fort Campbell’s 101st Airborne Division, which saw its first combat during the invasion of Normandy in World War II, fought some of the Afghanistan war’s bloodiest battles along the hostile eastern spine, in places they never planned to hold.

Days after Nunez’s regiment fought in the battle for Barawala Kalay, U.S. troops emptied out of the valley. The mission was to disrupt a Taliban haven, not to maintain a presence there. Nunez’s tour was up. He flew back to Fort Campbell puzzling over the strategy.

Now, 2 1 / 2 months later, when he hears the word “withdrawal,” Nunez thinks of Barawala Kalay — what he came to see as a painful fight of uncertain value, hastily planned and quietly abandoned.

He and his friends keep their posed photos from a visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates crumpled in glove compartments and stuffed in desk drawers. When al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed, their celebration was muted. They were unfazed when Obama came to Fort Campbell in May to congratulate the troops, including the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden, on a job well done.

“We hear pep talks all the time,” Nunez said. “Doesn’t make the fight any easier.”

More than 10,000 Fort Campbell soldiers, most with the 101st Airborne Division, have returned to the base in recent months, repopulating an entire city with veterans of Afghan provinces and valleys whose names they still can’t pronounce.

Drawing on their personal experience, and often little else, some have come to vastly different conclusions about Obama’s announced withdrawal.

“We could win this thing if we flooded the country. Instead, we’re pulling out. Afghans want to know if we can provide them security. We’re basically telling them that we can’t,” said Staff Sgt. Jimmy Schumacher, 29, who fought in the Wotapur district of Konar.

“The whole time I didn’t know why we were there. And now we’re leaving — after I’ve been shot in the leg,” said Pfc. Stephen Palu, who was also in Konar. He has since recovered from his leg wound.

Seven thousand Fort Campbell soldiers are still in Afghanistan, and more trickle back to base each month, greeted in a decorated airplane hangar and set free to navigate the bars, tattoo parlors and barbershops that pepper the base’s periphery.

Local stores and restaurants, some nearly driven out of business during the surge, are starting to fill up again. Family Readiness Groups of military spouses are waiting for husbands and wives to move back into neat subdivisions. Many know that the pace of withdrawal means that thousands will return to Afghanistan before the combat mission ends in 2014.

When the war is discussed here, it’s often among men who call themselves grunts, who discreetly, or not so discreetly, criticize high-ranking officers and policymakers.

Officers chide these soldiers for talking too much, for letting their narrow experiences inform opinions about the war’s prospects.

“I was the same way when I was an infantry guy in Iraq. You grow out of it,” said Warrant Officer Jeremy Meyer, a medical evacuation pilot, who spent Saturday afternoon playing darts with a group of officers at the American Legion.

Nunez and his friends spend much of their time at O’Connor’s Irish Pub & Grill, where volleyball games and beanbag tosses are punctuated by harrowing stories about a war some have left forever and some expect to see again.

Nunez has two months left in the Army. As it has for many others, the war has shaken his marriage and haunts him in quiet moments.

At O’Connor’s last week, he asked his friends sheepishly, “Are any of you guys having trouble sleeping?” And then later, quietly, “It’s like the images keep playing over in my head.”

This week, men from his company will have their first mandatory meetings with mental health workers.

Through it all, Nunez is trying to adjust to life as an observer of military engagements rather than a participant. He says he’ll try to dismiss big announcements and shifts in policy — messages “from guys who have no idea what it looks like over there.”

But on the night he heard about Obama’s withdrawal, he tried his best to reconcile the Afghanistan of the president’s speech with the hills and valleys he grew to know. He couldn’t do it.

“There’s this gap between what I hear now and what I saw,” he said. “And it feels like it’s growing every day.”

Staff writer Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.