At least 1,500 members of the U.S. military have died and 12,000 have been wounded since the war began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year. Those costs have risen in importance as a divided U.S. government struggles to contain its soaring debt.
Conceding the economic strain of waging war at a time of rising debt and fiscal constraint, Obama said it was time for America "to focus on nation-building here at home." The president's chances for re-election rest largely on his ability to show faster job growth in a time of deepening economic pessimism.
The withdrawal is supported by the bold bottom-line claims of his security team: Afghanistan, training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., no longer is a launching pad for exporting terrorism and hasn't been for years. But that also could fuel arguments for even greater withdrawals by voters wondering what the point of the war is after all these years, especially since the face of the enemy — al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden — was killed by American forces last month during a U.S. raid in Pakistan.
Yet the White House insists the U.S. must maintain a strong fighting force in Afghanistan for now to keep the country from slipping back into a terrorist haven.
Obama said Wednesday that materials recovered during the raid to get bin Laden showed that al-Qaida was under deep strain. He said bin Laden himself expressed concern that his organization would be unable to effectively replace senior leaders that had been killed.
The president declared, "We have put al-Qaida on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done."
Even after the troops come home, the war will remain expanded on Obama's watch. He approved 21,000 additional troops for Afghanistan shortly after taking office in 2009, bringing the total number to 68,000. That means he is likely to face re-election with more troops in Afghanistan than when he took office, although he has also dramatically reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
The president spoke for just under 15 minutes from the East Room. It was a strategic moment for him to try to explain a turning point in the war effort without elevating it to a major Oval Office address — more of a stay-the-course case of progress and resilience.
"Of course, huge challenges remain," the president said. "This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war."
Military commanders favored a plan that would allow them to keep as many of the 30,000 surge troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, ideally through the end of 2012. That timeline would have given them greater troop strength through two crucial fighting seasons.
Obama overruled them.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor, Matthew Lee and Donna Cassata in Washington and Solomon Moore in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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