COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – Here’s a partial list of issues President Obama is grappling with this week.
Troop pullout slows
President Barack Obama has made the steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan a top priority for his second term, but his decision Tuesday to change course and slow the drawdown reflects a renewed concern about terrorism threats and a clear rapport with Afghanistan’s new president after years of friction with his predecessor.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a U.S.-educated technocrat who spent 15 years working at the World Bank in Washington, replaced Hamid Karzai, who often was harshly critical of U.S. policies and tactics even as American troops were fighting and dying in his country.
Karzai’s refusal to approve a bilateral security agreement necessary to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan left relations with the White House in tatters last year. Ghani made signing the accord one of his first official acts after his election in the country’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power last fall.
The administration had planned to cut the U.S. military force to about 5,500 troops this year as part of a phased withdrawal. But Obama says he now plans to keep the current force of 9,800 troops there through the end of the year, although he still plans to end America’s longest war before he leaves office.
Staying the course
At a White House news conference with Ghani, Obama said he hasn’t changed his plan to shrink the U.S. force in Afghanistan to a limited security and military aid mission, with several hundred military personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul late next year. He said the “specific trajectory” of that drawdown would be set later this year.
The deadline for the “normalization of our presence in Afghanistan remains the end of 2016,” Obama said. “That hasn’t changed. Our transition out of a combat role has not changed.”
But he said he had decided to leave all U.S. troops in place this year “to help Afghan forces succeed so we don’t have to go back, so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because terrorist activities are being launched from Afghanistan.”
The U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 aimed to eradicate a sanctuary for al-Qaida, the terrorist network that launched the Sept. 11 attacks, and oust the Taliban from power. It proved relatively easy to topple the Taliban, but difficult over the next 14 years to pacify or unify a poverty-stricken country ruled by warlords.
About 850,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, and 2,356 died there, but the Taliban insurgency remains very much alive.
Afghan security forces took over primary responsibility for combat operations last year. Since then, more than 9,000 troops and police have been killed in action, a casualty level that a senior U.S. general in November called “unsustainable.”
The Afghan army managed to hold off insurgent attempts to recapture major towns in the south last year, but it still has large gaps that will take years to fill, including the need to build an air force and the capability to keep units supplied in the field, U.S. commanders say.
Obama has come under growing pressure to ease back on his drawdown, or at least to leave the decision to the next occupant in the White House. House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that Obama shouldn’t be “dictating policy preferences divorced from security realities.”
House approves budget
House Republicans pushed past their internal divisions to approve a budget blueprint Wednesday, putting the new Congress on track to notch a significant achievement once Senate Republicans pass their version by the end of the week.
The ambitious but largely symbolic spending proposals adhere to Republican ideas for slashing social safety-net programs and lowering tax rates. But the GOP has drawn criticism for dramatically boosting defense spending in a way that breaks with the Republican pledge to stick to deficit-lowering limits imposed at their own behest just a few years ago.
The Senate, meanwhile, continued working through amendments to its plan. Once both chambers finish their work this week, new challenges await when they return from a spring break next month.
They must reconcile their different plans, which could prove difficult if they hope to achieve one of their top goals – passage of a bill to repeal Obama’s health care law.
Though the House has voted more than 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, legislation has never been sent to the president because it could not overcome opposition in the Senate.
The budget process offers a special opportunity that would allow Republicans to pass a bill to repeal the health care law with only a simple majority, averting a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.
Obama would veto such legislation, but getting the measure to the president’s desk would give Republicans boasting rights in future election campaigns.
Passage of the budget proposals also fulfills a GOP promise to break the gridlock in Congress and govern more effectively. Republicans frequently criticized Democrats for failing to pass a budget in recent years when they held the majority in the Senate.
Nuclear deal close
If all goes according to plan, U.S. officials will return home from Lausanne, Switzerland next week declaring they have reached a historic agreement that will restrict Iran’s nuclear program forever.
Iranian officials will be in Tehran triumphantly explaining that they have secured a deal that will free Iran in a few years to pursue its nuclear program just like any other country.
The nuclear negotiations, which have been underway for more than two years, have reached a crucial phase, with both sides indicating that a deal is near. Agreement on at least the outline of a deal could be reached in a few days, diplomats say.
Over the next few months, U.S. and Iranian officials are likely to be making starkly contradictory cases about the deal they have reached, both seeking to sell it at home.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has set the bar sky high for what sort of deal will be acceptable, saying any agreement must preserve Iran’s “dignity and integrity” by giving it the freedom accorded any other country to pursue a civilian nuclear program.
Under pressure from Congress, Israel and Iran’s Arab rivals, the Obama administration is living under the rule of “distrust and verify.”
David S. Cloud, Lisa Mascaro, Christi Parsons, and Paul Richter (Tribune Washington Bureau) all contributed to this report.