PULLBACK: A German Bundeswehr soldier of the Nato-lead International Security Assistance Force passes Afghan civilians during a mine sweeping operation on the outskirts of Kunduz. Germany says it will continue its gradual withdrawal of troops. Picture: REUTERS

LEGISLATORS in President Barack Obama's Democratic Party are leading the criticism of his troop withdrawal plan in Afghanistan, a drawdown that removes only "surge" forces that he sent there during his first year in office.

After Mr Obama's announcement yesterday, Democrats said the timeline for bringing 33000 US troops home by next September was not fast enough.

"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of US forces would happen sooner than the president laid out - and we will continue to press for a better outcome," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, leading a chorus of disgruntled Democrats who politely took the president to task .

However, John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said that Mr Obama's plan would allow the Afghans to "begin to make the accommodations and the choices about their own future".

The Republican response to Mr Obama's timeline for withdrawing tens of thousands of troops was measured. Republican House Speaker John Boehner warned Mr Obama not to sacrifice the gains the US has made in Afghanistan, while senator John McCain said the drawdown was too rash.

"This is not the 'modest' withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated," he said.

Potential Republican presidential candidates were quick to weigh in with criticism of the plan.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney accused Mr Obama of proposing an "arbitrary timetable" and said the decision on withdrawing troops "should not be based on politics or economics".

Jon Huntsman, Mr Obama's former ambassador to China, said the approach in Afghanistan should be focused on counterterrorism, "which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight".

As Mr Obama works to sell his withdrawal plan, he was due yesterday to visit Fort Drum, the New York state army post that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan.

Mr Obama ordered more than 30000 "surge" forces to Afghanistan in 2009 to rescue a flailing effort, and promised to start bringing them home next month.

Even after the surge forces leave Afghanistan, 70000 US troops will remain in an unstable country, fighting in a war bound to see more Americans killed.

Mr Obama said that the US combat mission was not expected to end until December 2014 - and even then, a sizeable and enduring contingent may remain in a different role.

Mr Obama's announcement from the White House came in a perilous political environment. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and are far more concerned about the teetering economic recovery at home.

At least 1500 members of the US military have died and 12000 have been wounded since the war began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440bn and is on the rise, jumping to $120bn a year. Those costs have risen in importance as a divided US government struggles to contain its soaring debt.

Admitting the economic strain of waging war at a time of rising debt and fiscal constraint, Mr Obama said it was time to withdraw from the international stage and " focus on nation-building".

The president's chances for

re-election rest largely on his ability to show faster job growth economic as pessimism deepens.

The withdrawal is supported by the bold bottom-line claims of his security team: Afghanistan, training ground for the September 11 2001 attacks on the US, is no longer a launching pad for exporting terrorism and has not been for years. But that also could fuel arguments for even greater withdrawals by voters wondering what the point of the war is after all these years, especially since the face of the enemy - al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - has been killed by American forces last month during a US raid in Pakistan.

Yet the White House insists the US must maintain a strong fighting force in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama said materials taken in the raid in which Mr bin Laden was killed, showed al-Qaeda was under deep strain. Mr bin Laden himself was concerned it would be unable to replace senior leaders who had been killed.

The president said: "We have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done."

Military commanders favoured a plan that would allow them to keep as many of the 30000 surge troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, ideally to the end of next year. That timeline would have given them greater troop strength for two crucial fighting seasons. Mr Obama overruled them. Sapa-AP