WASHINGTON — President 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 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.
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.