US President Barack Obama has confirmed that 33,000 troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2012, as NATO begins to wind down its presence in the country. France has announced plans to follow suit.
In a televised speech to the nation on Wednesday evening, US President Barack Obama announced plans for the withdrawal of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by autumn next year, saying the end was in sight for the NATO-led coalition.
"We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11," said Obama, referring to the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in 2001.
More than half of al Qaeda's leadership had been eliminated, added the president - Osama bin Laden's death in May being the most significant of all.
For more than seven years, according to the White House, there have been no signs of attacks on US soil being planned in Afghanistan.
The leaders of the terror organization, if not dead, have been forced out of Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan, and are no longer able to train terrorists on Afghan soil. Obama added that the Taliban has also suffered heavy losses.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday welcomed Obama's announcement to begin a drawdown of US forces.
"We can see the tide is turning," Rasmussen said in a statement on NATO's website. "The Taliban are under pressure. The Afghan security forces are getting stronger every day. And the transition to Afghan security lead is on track to be completed in 2014."
Taliban pressed hard
Obama pointed out that with Afghan security forces currently standing at about 100,000 in number, the planned 2014 handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government had already been achieved in some municipalities.
"In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war. A new chapter," he said.
In December 2009, Obama had announced a troop surge of 30,000 soldiers, with a further 3,000 personnel sent as logistical support for these combat forces.
At the same time, Obama had signaled July 2011 as the date he wanted to turn the tide of the surge and start to bring soldiers back. In Wednesday's speech, he was essentially aiming to make good on this promise.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has applauded Obama's decision, saying it indicated plans for brining NATO troops back were becoming more concrete and that the US was signaling its cooperation with the international strategy in Afghanistan.
"It's our goal as well to start brining back German troops by the end of the year," Westerwelle added in a statement on Thursday, referring to Germany's contingent of roughly 5,000 troops.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also lent his support to Obama's decision on Thursday, saying France would stick to a similar time frame for gradually bringing home its 4,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Slow and steady course change
However, Obama remains keen that any withdrawal should not be carried out to quickly. The situation is still described as "unstable" by generals and the gains made up to this point are not irreversible.
With much fighting in Afghanistan taking place during the summer, the plan allows for the American military to remain at close to full-strength during this period both this year and the next. At present, there are some 100,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, with a further 40,000 as part of the ISAF international task force.
Obama warned that it would still not be simple to ensure that the coalition achieved its goals. "Huge challenges remain," he pointed out.
Outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also recently warned of the dangers of too rapid a withdrawal of troops this month.
The president also spoke of the cost of the exercise, which currently amounts to $10 billion (7 billion euros) per month.
Over the course of the last decade, the US spent around $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president said. Given the difficult economic situation faced by the world, he said it was now time to focus on domestic investment.
"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," said Obama.
The withdrawal of troops is sure to be popular, with even Republicans now calling for the withdrawal.
A warning to Pakistan
In his speech, the president also addressed the issue of Pakistan. The relationship between Islamabad and Washington also had its share of difficulties, he noted.
On the one hand, Pakistan supported the US battle against terrorism, while on the other it seemed apparent that at least a part of the Pakistani military and intelligences had been infiltrated by terror networks. This was the reason for not informing Pakistani authorities of the action against bin Laden.
"We will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region," said the president, before issuing a stern warning. "There should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve."
The president had made the final decision on the troop pullout on Tuesday, according to spokesman Jay Carney, after several meetings in recent weeks with security officials.
The president also informed Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as the leaders of nations committed to the NATO-led effort, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The future of Afghanistan will be discussed at a conference in the German city of Bonn in December. In addition, a further conference is planned for May next year in Chicago.