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Military chiefs turn their fire on Barack Obama over Afghanistan withdrawal plan

America’s military leaders have distanced themselves from President’s Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next September, branding the drawdown timetable as more hasty and riskier than the one they proposed.

General David Petraeus, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, told Senators: “The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the most senior United States military commander, used a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee to reveal a significant breach between Mr Obama and the senior officers he charged with defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” he told a House of Representatives committee hearing.

Gen Petraeus said his recommendation had been based on his desire for a full complement of troops for two more summer fighting seasons. Under Mr Obama’s new orders, a third of the current force will have returned before the end of the 2011 fighting season.

He added that there were “broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander” and that “with the decision made, obviously I support that”.

Robert Gates, the Pentagon chief, said that there was debate in the White House about “not only the situation on the ground in Afghanistan but also political sustainability here at home”.

Mr Obama’s plan drew heavily on advice from Joe Biden, the vice president, who has long favoured a “counter terrorism” rather than a manpower-heavy “counter insurgency” strategy.

“More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the President, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take,” Adml Mullen said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said: “Petraeus loses, Biden wins. And I respect the vice president, but I think that we have undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this more difficult.”

In his speech, Mr Obama, who did not mention Gen Petraeus, told Americans that “the tide of war is receding” and that after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan “these long wars will come to a responsible end”.

Now that “the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance” in Afghanistan, it was “time to focus on nation building here at home”.

The comments of Adml Mullen and Gen Petraeus were carefully phrased but clearly calculated to express a rare public disagreement between Mr Obama and his top brass.

A rift with Gen Petraeus, who commanded the successful Iraq surge, is revered by many members of Congress and has been floated as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, could have serious political ramifications for Mr Obama.

The Pentagon fought a rearguard action to prevent the surge force ordered into Afghanistan by Mr Obama in December 2009 from being pulled out by early spring next year but the withdrawal plan announced by Mr Obama, which had initially been tabled as a “compromise” by Mr Gates was not endorsed by Gen Petraeus.

There were reports of heated discussions during the month before Mr Obama’s prime-time speech on Wednesday night. Gen Petraeus characterised them as “vigorous” and “healthy debate”.

White House officials, aware of the soaring costs of the war and its questionable progress could be a political liability in the 2012 election, are said to have clashed with Gen Petraeus, who argued that with more time he could repeat his success in Iraq.

Mr Obama rejected the Petraeus proposal to shift thousands of troops to from southern Afghanistan, which has been largely pacified, to the east in order to build a counter-insurgency campaign there. He also refused to bow to Gen Petraeus’s request to keep some of the 33,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2013.

Seeking to avoid an ugly public row, Mr Gates confirmed that Gen Petraeus had wanted a slower drawdown but added that he was “not aware of a single general ever in history that did not want more troops and more time”.

Nearly 70,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan even after the reductions announced by Mr Obama. This is twice the number when he took office in January 2009.

Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense, told members of Congress: “Clearly, this is not a ‘rush to the exits’ that will jeopardise our security gains.”

Mr Obama’s speech was warmly welcomed by America’s Nato allies. Speaking in Afghanistan, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said: “We welcome President Obama’s announcement and it is in line with our own thinking. There is clearly progress being made in Afghanistan and I’ve seen that for myself on this visit.”

Mr Hague confirmed that there were talks with the Taliban. Contacts do take place,” he said. “The United Kingdom will assist in that when it can.”

Speaking to senators in Washington, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, described the contacts as “very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban”, adding that “this is not a pleasant business” but an essential element of ending the insurgency.

Mr Obama told troops in New York state that there were “signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement that ultimately is going to be critical in consolidating that country”.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced a pullout “in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements” while Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s Defence Minister, said that his country hoped “to be able to reduce our own troop contingent for the first time” by the end of 2011.

Filed in: World News

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