The US drawdown in Afghanistan and the war's Saudi roots


US soldiers from Viper Company (Bravo), 1-26 Infantry walk during a patrol at Combat Outpost (COP) Sabari in Khost province in the east of Afghanistan on June 22, 2011.


Ted Aljibe/AFP

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – It can be argued that the very long road that led to America’s longest war began here where Osama bin Laden and his ideology of Al Qaeda were born and where 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were recruited.

On Wednesday night President Barack Obama announced the beginning of the end of a “difficult decade” of war for America that began after Sept. 11, 2001 in Afghanistan against bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that offered Al Qaeda its base of operations.

“The tide of war is receding,” Obama said in a 13-minute speech from the East Wing of the White House.  

On the heels of the operation that killed bin Laden and significant gains against the the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Obama announced a drawdown of 10,000 troops this year, which would begin next month.

A U.S. security official told GlobalPost that the drawdown would get underway with the withdrawal of one brigade, or approximately 2,500 troops, in July. Obama also announced that he would bring home a total of 33,000 troops by the end of the summer of 2012.

That would still leave some 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with further drawdowns to take place “at a steady pace” and be completed by 2014, Obama said. 

The pace of this troop drawdown has been the center of an intense policy debate within the Obama administration that has raged since he took office in 2009 and soon thereafter announced the plan for a surge of troops during a speech at West Point.

The accepted wisdom at this point is that this drawdown sets a pace that favors the more liberal wing of the administration personified by Vice President Joe Biden. Although observers hasten to add that many of those Democrats who support a faster drawdown are likely to be disappointed that the timetable for withdrawal is not aggressive enough.

For commanders in the field and many leading Republicans, there is a strong resistance to set timetables in a war zone and the pace of the drawdown is seen as too aggressive. General David Petraeus, according to those close to him, has consistently expressed concern that too hasty a withdrawal can undercut the hard-fought gains against the Taliban which were obtained through the surge of forces.

(Read GlobalPost’s series "The Last Fighting Season" for an exclusive interview with Petraeus and an in-depth look at how the four-star general sees the lay of the land this summer as he prepares to exit the battlefield and go before Congress for confirmation hearings to take the helm of the C.I.A.)

General Petraeus is expected to face questions on the conduct of the war Thursday when he goes before the Senate for confirmation hearings as the director of the C.I.A. If he is confirmed, Petraeus is likely to continue to play a key role in an emerging Obama doctrine which, as he put it Wednesday night, needs to be “as strategic as we are resolute.”

And in his speech, President Obama also provided a nod to the dramatic events of the "Arab Spring" that has toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt and unleashed a democratic opposition to autocratic regimes in Syria, Libya, Yemen and beyond.

“We do not stand for empire, but self-determination,” Obama said.

They are encouraging words for those who are taking to the streets in the reform movements that are writhing in the Arab world, but it is also a worrisome tone for autocratic monarchies like Saudi Arabia weathering the shifting winds of the Arab Spring.

If Saudi Arabia is the place where the long road to America’s longest war began, there are many questions here as to where the road leads now as it twists and turns toward a new, post 9-11 era.