Last night I speculated that reports of General Petraeus’s preferred timetable for drawing down the number of troops in Afghanistan would be a pretty good indicator of what Obama will say tomorrow; an hour later I saw today’s LA Times story emphasizing that Obama would announce a drawdown faster than what Petraeus advocated, and added an update concluding that I had gotten this totally wrong. Looking around this morning at what other news outlets are saying, I wonder if I wasn’t too hard on myself; the LAT‘s reporters are the only ones that seem at all confident that the President has actually made a decision, and even they include a caveat on that point. More to the point, it doesn’t actually sound like the President is likely to deviate from Petraeus’s request as much as the LAT story is framed to suggest.
As he closes in on a decision, another official said, Mr. Obama is considering options that range from a Pentagon-backed proposal to pull out only 5,000 troops this year to an aggressive plan to withdraw within 12 months all 30,000 troops the United States deployed to Afghanistan as part of the surge in December 2009.
Under another option, a third official said, Mr. Obama would announce a final date for the withdrawal of all the surge forces sometime in 2012, but leave the timetable for incremental reductions up to commanders in the field – much as he did in drawing down troops after the surge in Iraq.
Although Obama has yet to make a final decision on how many troops to remove in July, administration officials say the number is likely to fall between 3,000 to 5,000, including some originally scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan but will instead stay home or be sent elsewhere.
Some reports have suggested that 5,000 combat troops may be brought home in July, with roughly an additional 5,000 by the end of the year — but no confirmed numbers have been released.
Taken together, these reports suggest that while Obama may move a bit faster with troop withdrawals than Petraeus and others at the Pentagon would like, the difference is withdrawing two stages of 5,000 troops by the end of the year rather than by next spring, a difference of a few months. The medium-term goal, the withdrawal of 30,000 troops by the end of 2012, is in line with what Petraeus reportedly endorses.