The Cable

Will Obama 'split the baby' on Afghanistan -- again?

When President Barack Obama announces his decision on the size of the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan tomorrow night, he can satisfy those calling for a "modest" reduction, or those calling for a "significant" reduction of U.S. soldiers - or he can take the middle road and make both sides equally unhappy.

Obama will address the nation Wednesday at 8 p.m. from the White House to "lay out his plan for implementing his strategy...to draw down American troops from Afghanistan," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

When Obama formulated his Afghan war strategy in December 2009, he was faced with two sets of advisors giving him contradictory recommendations. On one side were military and Pentagon leaders urging him to surge 40,000 troops to Afghanistan to implement a counterinsurgency strategy. On the other side were NSC advisors and Vice President Joseph Biden, who urged Obama to surge only 20,000 troops to focus on counterterrorism operations.

Obama, in King Solomon-like fashion, decided to draft his own six-page plan for Afghanistan that resulted in a surge of 30,000 troops to pursue a strategy that mixed counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

Tomorrow, Obama faces a similar dilemma. Many reports predict he will announce that the United States will withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of 2011. That number is not likely to please those calling for a "modest" withdrawal, or those calling for "significant" reductions.

"It should be a significant number, that's what the president committed to, and significant means a minimum of 15,000 by the end of this year," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today. He has also recommended that the entire surge force of 30,000 soldiers be removed by next spring.

"If it's not significant, it doesn't serve its purpose, which is to make it clear to the Afghan government that the primary responsibility for security needs to be transferred to them. And anything less than 15,000 sends a weaker message to the Afghan people and the wrong message to the American people, who really want us to make significant reductions in our presence," Levin said.

Levin's GOP counterpart, committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) is on the opposite side of this debate. He told The Cable Tuesday that he agreed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the drawdown should be "modest."

"Secretary Gates said a modest number that would not affect the troops that we've sent over as part of the surge. I totally agree with Secretary Gates. That's 3,000 to 5,000, that's what Secretary Gates recommended," said McCain.

The White House is cognizant of the political risks of going against the advice of its military professionals. Administration officials were quick to point out that ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus gave Obama a "range of options" when the two met at the White House last week.

But with so many officials and lawmakers already on record with their recommendations, the White House will be hard pressed to claim that it is following the recommendations of one side or the other if it does decide to announce the withdrawal of 10,000 troops.

Top officials have already admitted that the size of the drawdown won't be based on purely military considerations, but also the public mood concerning the Afghan war.

"It goes without saying that there are a lot of reservations in the Congress about the war in Afghanistan, and our level of commitment. There are concerns among the American people who are tired of a decade of war," Gates said on Tuesday. "So the president obviously has to take those matters into consideration, as well as the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan in making his decision."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the president's decision Tuesday, but will be testifying on the issue before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday morning.

Those who want faster reductions not only believe that U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unjustifiable, but also make the argument that the current pace of war operations is fiscally unsustainable.

"Cost is very relevant issue to the speed of these reductions. There's a very large savings with the increasing level of reductions," Levin said.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

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