Many Afghans had been awaiting Barack Obama's announcement of a troop drawdown with a mixture of dread and happiness. In Kabul, the big surprise was not the announcement that U.S. forces will be leaving, but that the number of troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2011 10,000 would be so large and that 23,000 more will leave over the course of a "fighting season" next spring and summer. Obama said the withdrawal of troops had been made possible because three objectives are now being fulfilled: a refocus on al-Qaeda instead of the Taliban; a reversal of the Taliban's momentum; and the training of Afghan National Security Forces to defend the country.
But to Afghans, it is not at all clear that the U.S. is achieving or has achieved any of these goals despite President Hamid Karzai praising Obama's speech. While it cannot be disputed that in places like the heavily contested Arghandab district of Kandahar province the scene of ferocious fighting last spring and summer the Taliban's momentum has indeed been slowed by a massive surge in troops, Afghans across the country do not believe their national security forces are ready, or will be ready any time soon, to take over security duties. And while the U.S. military's killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan allowed Obama to talk about a refocusing of activity away from the Taliban and towards al-Qaeda, the day-to-day fighting that continues unabated all over the country is mostly between coalition and Afghan government forces, on one side, and Taliban insurgent groups, on the other.
"We were expecting President Obama to make a political decision in the context of U.S. politics as he has an important election coming up in 2012. But we didn't expect it to be so many troops being pulled out and we didn't expect the withdrawal to be carried out over fighting seasons," Haron Mir, a former aid to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, tells TIME. "We expected a few thousand, not 10,000."
The withdrawal of so many troops in so short a time, Mir says, will have serious repercussions for the security gains that have been made since the start of the surge. "General Petraeus and others have said that the Taliban's momentum has been broken. This announcement will certainly bolster the Taliban's morale," he says, echoing commonly-made predictions that announcements of a looming pull-out will incite Taliban insurgents to fight harder.
The Taliban, however, remain skeptical of Washington's proposed moves. Their spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid calls the withdrawal of 10,000 troops a "symbolic step" since the U.S. is "forcing its stooge regime to approve" permanent bases in Afghanistan. Mujahid tells TIME that "Obama's statement about training Afghan Police and Army holds no significance" since those forces, he claims, are made up of "drug addicts who have been forced out of their homes." He added that, "the American people, who have now understood many of the realities about the Afghan war, must take serious steps to stop this pointless bloodshed. The American taxpayers must realize that, like over the previous 10 years, their money is still being wasted on this pointless and meaningless war or is still going to the pockets of officials in the corrupt Kabul regime." Mujahid finishes by saying that only the "full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately" would bring an end to the fighting.