Senior Administration Officials: U.S. Forces will Begin to Leave Afghanistan in July 2011

Tonight's speech could be the president's most important foreign policy address.

December 1, 2009, 7:34 AM

Dec. 1, 2009— -- President Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will result in Afghan forces standing up on an accelerated basis, allowing U.S. forces to begin leaving Afghanistan and transfer control to local forces in July 2011, senior administration officials said today.

July 2011 "is the beginning of the process, that will be conditions-based," a senior administration official said. When U.S. forces will have withdrawn is "not yet defined in terms of the length or endpoint."

As Obama prepares to deliver what could be the most important foreign policy address of his career, tonight Afghanistan will officially become his war and he will have to explain it to a war-weary public.

The president will announce that 30,000 additional U.S. troops will head to Afghanistan -- bringing the total to 100,000 troops -- with a more focused mission and an exit plan that relies on training Afghan national forces.

"There's going to be an initiative of Afghans taking responsibility in certain geographic areas, certainly during this term," an official told ABC News, adding that will allow a "thinning out" of the estimated 100,000 U.S. forces in the country "by the end of the president's first term."

It is not just the number of troops that will increase, but there are expected to be close to 1,000 U.S. civilian personnel in Afghanistan by the first quarter of 2010, up from 320 currently, according to the official.

The official said Obama's strategy will include accelerated training of Afghan forces, an emphasis on security for population centers, and "bringing security to more areas of the country," according to the official, which will in turn "bolster the confidence of the Afghan people in U.S. resolve," and lead more of them to join the army and police.

The White House is setting a timetable to exert pressure on Afghanistan to accelerate troop training and government stability without setting a timetable alerting the enemy as to when U.S. forces will leave.

"If the Taliban think they can wait this out, I think they are misjudging the president's approach," another official said. "It may be misinterpreted but the Taliban will do that at their own risk."

In Pakistan, the president's goal of "disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda" means degrading extremist forces who threaten the government, keeping the government stable, ensuring the security of its nuclear weapons, and reducing tensions with India. In Afghanistan, the official said, that goal means reversing the momentum of the Taliban so the Afghans can govern themselves.

"We can't have the Afghans continue to expend on the endless resources of the American armed forces or the American people," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer today. "What we are going to do after eight years is institute a genuine strategy for Afghanistan that trains the Afghan national security forces... eventually transfers the responsibility of the security of that region to the Afghan people and Afghan national security forces. ... It's a plan for getting our men and women back where they belong, which is here in the United States."

Obama pushed hard to move up the deployment to get them on the ground within six months, administration officials told ABC News today. One issue that arose in discussions with the president's "war council" was the need to have more boots on the ground as soon as possible. An original assessment that it would take new troops a year to fully deploy was, upon urging by the president, changed to six months, officials said.

A senior administration official said the first batch of troops will start deploying in January, if not sooner, and the plan is to have all the new forces in by summer. He also expressed optimism that NATO will contribute an additional 5,000 to 7,000 troops.

Of the total U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan, "there is still some assessment going on at the Pentagon as to how many combat brigades that will include," an official said, adding that it will likely be two or three. There may be a brigade completely committed to embedded training of Afghan forces. All U.S. forces will be committed to partnering with Afghan forces, officials said.

In anticipation of the president's address, officials began providing new details of Pentagon's plans, including the deployment of troops to population centers in Eastern Afghanistan, such as Khost, and in Southern Afghanistan, such as Kandahar. Administration officials sought to portray the roughly 20 members of the president's war council as united on the new policy.

"We worked together to narrow divides," an administration official said.

During the three-month review process, officials said, the president "ordered up nearly three-dozen intelligence products. It was a deep dive into who the enemy is, what their capacity is, and what would happen under various hypotheticals."

U.S. forces will seek to degrade Taliban forces both through combat and by enticing low level Taliban fighters to re-join Afghan society, including through employment in government security forces. As has been happening to a larger degree since Gen. Stanely McChrystal, the top commander on the ground, took charge in Afghanistan earlier this year, American troops will embed with Afghan units and fight alongside them.

White House: Troop Surge Not Part of 'Nation Building'

In his speech tonight, the president will explain why more troops are needed to take out al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and accelerate the U.S. exit strategy from that region, Gibbs said on "GMA."

But skeptics, Republicans and Democrats alike, are not convinced of Obama's strategy.

Democrats are concerned about the costs of supporting the war. Today, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters there is great reservation in the caucus about any acceleration of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but added that he will withhold judgment until he hears from the president.

"35,000 more troops is a big deal and its going to be 35,000 times harder to extricate them from all this," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Liberal advocacy group sent an e-mail to its members today urging them to call the White House and "Tell the president that we want him to focus on bringing our troops home, not escalating our involvement in Afghanistan."

One Democratic lawmaker has even suggested a new tax be imposed on Americans to fund the costs of additional troops. Gibbs said the president understands this is an expensive endeavor, but the administration will make sure it's part of the budget.

"The president will address that a little bit tonight but look, going forward, the president is not going to make a national security decision simply based on money alone," the press secretary said. "We're going to make sure this is part of our budget and we understand that going forward, we have to pay for this kind of stuff."

On the GOP front, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would be concerned if President Obama lays out too strict a timeline for withdrawing American combat troops from Afghanistan after bringing the force level close to 100,000 next year.

"I have deep concerns about setting a date certain for withdrawal," McCain, who has long supported an infusion of combat troops in Afghanistan, told reporters today. "Success is what causes us to withdraw. You don't want to tell the enemy that you're coming or when you're leaving."

In an interview with Politico, former Vice President Dick Cheney said the president's approach projects "weakness" and that the average Afghan citizen "sees talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win."

"Those folks ... begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies," Cheney said. "They're worried the United States isn't going to be there much longer and the bad guys are."

Gibbs responded by pointing out that Obama has doubled the number of security forces since he took office, making the country more safe.

"I would be a busy man if all I did was respond to the poppings off of the former vice president," Gibbs said on "GMA." "I'm not entirely sure what qualifies the former vice president to render an opinion on Afghanistan."

"The number of men and women in our armed forces right now sitting in Afghanistan is twice the number that was there when the president took office in January," Gibbs said.

Obama to Announce New Troops for Afghanistan

Gibbs emphasized that the troop increase is not part of "nation building" and "not an open-ended commitment," a point that the president will reiterate at tonight's address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. at 8 p.m. ET.

At the Business Executives for National Security gala in New York City last night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the stakes in stark terms, an argument similar to what the president will make tonight.

"If al Qaeda succeeds in maintaining a safe haven in this region, and if the Taliban succeeds in controlling parts of these countries, terrorists will continue to use this area to plan future attacks on the United States, our interests and our allies -- just as they did when they plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. We cannot let that happen," Clinton told attendees.

As he increases the number of troops in Afghanistan, Obama is faced with the ghosts of wartime presidents past. The annual approval ratings of the last three presidents enmeshed in unpopular wars -- Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush -- declined sharply during their presidency.

How the ongoing war in Afghanistan impacts Obama remains to be seen, but there clearly are challenges. The president's approval rating on handling Afghanistan has fallen more steeply than on any other issue, down from 63 percent last spring to 45 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. Of those polled, 52 percent said the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting and 64 percent thought the risk of terrorism is the same whether the United States remains in Afghanistan or withdraws.

Gibbs said the president "sure believes" this is the last time he will be sending new troops.

"I think what the president is going to do is set forth a strategy, set forth some benchmarks that he believes we can meet, understanding that we're not going to be there forever and this can't be open ended," Gibbs said. "We have to talk about transitioning our forces out and putting forward the Afghans to provide their own security and stability."

A senior administration official tells ABC News that instead of U.S. funds going to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's central government, as they do now, much of it will go to the provincial and district level and to specific ministries, such as those devoted to Afghan security.

"Investments will be based on performance," the senior administration official said. "The era of the blank check for President Karzai is over."

And if Afghanistan's president continues to run a government that is full of corruption and fails to provide basic services, he may find himself out of the loop entirely.

On Monday night around 10 p.m., Obama held an hour-long video conference call with Karzai, whose office says the two leaders discussed in detail the security, political, military and economic aspects of the administration's strategy.

ABC News' Martha Raddatz, Z. Byron Wolf and Gary Langer contributed to this report

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