What Do Afghans Want? White House Official Says ‘They Want A Smaller Footprint But Don’t Want Us To Leave’

Tonight, President Obama announced the first phase of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, with 10,000 troops returning home this year and a total of 33,000 by the end of next summer. In 2008, Obama of course campaigned on a strategy of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan to help remove the safe havens of al Qaeda and other extremist groups. Upon entering office, the president subsequently authorized troop surges in early and late 2009.

That strategy, Obama argued tonight, has shown demonstrable success. “We are meeting our goals,” he said tonight in internationally-televised remarks. “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. … We’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds.”

During an interview with ThinkProgress and other media outlets at the White House this afternoon, a senior administration official stressed that, while the troop levels in Afghanistan remain quite high, the overall troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq combined are going down. The official said that there were approximately 180,000 troops in those two theaters when Obama entered office. Now, there are 150,000 troops, with a reduction to about 100,000 by the end of the year and roughly 70,000 by the end of next summer.

I asked the White House official whether they are taking the views of the Afghan people into consideration while devising their plans. “They want a smaller footprint and a greater sense of sovereignty,” the official said of the Afghan people, but “they don’t want us to leave.” He explained:

But they [the Afghan people] don’t want us to abandon Afghanistan. Now, abandonment shouldn’t be misconstrued, as it is by some people here, as therefore we have to keep 100,000 troops there indefinitely. I think the way they will measure that is what is the strategic partnership that we’ve forged. Can we be assured that after 2014 you’re not just going to pull the plug on this thing and let us — leave us to our own — leave us on our own. […]

So that’s — I think that’s the read, that they want to know that the transition is real, that the footprint is shrinking, but that at the same time there’s going to be some international support for them going forward.

A 2010 ABC poll found decreasing numbers of Afghans held favorable views of the U.S. Approximately 60 percent said they supported the presence of U.S. troops, but only 32 percent said they had positive ratings of the U.S. work.

Today, the White House official conceded that the U.S. presence has indeed caused more violence in certain parts of the country. “I mean, frankly, we made calculations that there are places in Afghanistan where there is fighting because we were there,” the official said. “And it wasn’t necessarily people who threatened us.”

Reacting to Obama’s speech, the Center for American Progress urged a faster redeployment out of Afghanistan. The CAP plan calls for a drawdown of at least 15,000 troops this year and a withdrawal of 60,000 troops over the next 18 months, leaving 40,000 remaining in the country by the end of 2012.