WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's order to withdraw 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan this year has been accomplished, a little more than a week before the year-end deadline, military officials said yesterday.
The drawdown is the first step in the plan to wind down the war, transition security to Afghan forces and end the combat role for international troops by the end of 2014.
It also gives the Obama administration a second war-related accomplishment to tout this month -- coming just a week after U.S. officials marked the end of the war in Iraq and the last convoy of American soldiers rumbled out of that country into Kuwait.
Officials say there are now 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- down from the peak of 101,000 in June.
In December 2009, Obama announced he was sending an additional 33,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a bid to beat back the escalating Taliban insurgency and change the course of the war. Six months ago, declaring that the "tide of war is receding," Obama said he would withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.
The decision was met with initial opposition from military leaders who thought the withdrawal was too much, too soon, particularly since it would pull troops out before the end of next year's fighting season, which can last well into October and even November.
Last week, however, during a trip to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeatedly told troops that the United States had reached a turning point in the war. And at one point he went so far as to say, "I really think that for all the sacrifices that you're doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we're moving in the right direction. . . . We're winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan."
Contrasting that assessment is the ongoing violence in Afghanistan's east, along the Pakistan border, and the high-profile attacks and assassinations that continue to wreak havoc in and around Kabul. The violence is compounded by worries about government corruption, the fragile economy, and fears that Afghan forces won't be ready to take over security of the country as American and NATO troops leave.