U.S. "surge" troops out of Afghanistan: defense official

AUCKLAND Thu Sep 20, 2012 9:13pm EDT

U.S. troops arrive near the site of an incident in Kabul August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

U.S. troops arrive near the site of an incident in Kabul August 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - The last of the 33,000 'surge' troops ordered into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama in 2009 have withdrawn from the country, returning the American presence to pre-surge levels, a senior U.S. defense official said on Friday.

The surge in American troops was designed to push back the Taliban and create space for NATO forces to build the Afghan army to a point where it could take over Afghanistan's security, allowing for an eventual Western drawdown.

The completion of the surge withdrawal had been expected by the end of September. Obama has trumpeted ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan as he seeks re-election on November 6.

The return of U.S. forces to pre-surge levels comes as NATO commanders wrestle with an upswing in "insider attacks" by Afghan forces turning their guns on Western troops.

NATO announced this week it was scaling back some joint operations with Afghan troops as a result, raising questions about Obama's plan to stabilize the country ahead of the expected withdrawal of most combat troops by the end of 2014.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney)