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Obama planning Afghan withdrawal

01 November 2011, 08:55

Washington - The White House has asked the Pentagon for initial recommendations for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, as they start planning the final U.S. drawdown there despite a bleak security outlook.

Sources familiar with the discussions said President Barack Obama's top aides have asked for scenarios for 2014. As part of that process, the Pentagon must look at troop levels for 2013 -- suggesting deeper withdrawals beyond the removal, by next September, of the 33,000 surge troops Obama deployed in a bid to turn around the flagging decade-old conflict.

"Planning for troop levels in 2013 and 2014 is now in a preliminary phase," said Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer who chaired the review of Afghan policy Obama ordered when he took office in 2009 and retains close White House ties.

Obama and allied leaders committed last year to turning security in Afghanistan over to Afghan control by 2014. And on a trip to Asia last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan, was developing a plan to gradually withdraw U.S. forces.

But it has not been previously reported that the White House requested detailed planning to see that goal through.

The efforts to chart the course out of Afghanistan come as the White House takes decisive steps to end the bloody, costly wars that defined the decade following the Sept. 11 attacks and refocus on an ailing U.S. economy and the 2012 election.

Last month, Obama announced he was pulling remaining U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the White House has not publicly announced its plans beyond the September 2012 drawdown of the surge troops.

"The President will make decisions on the size and shape of our post-September 2012 presence at the appropriate time, in consultation with our Afghan and NATO partners," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Even as the Obama administration presses ahead with its drawdown plans, security remains troubling on the ground and the Afghan government remains perilously weak and corrupt.

A plan to aggressively shrink a U.S. force that will be about 68,000-strong in Oct. 2012 will not sit well with the Pentagon, which wants to hold on to a larger force for as long as possible as it seeks to make security gains permanent.

The Pentagon claims to have driven Taliban insurgents out of many of their southern strongholds. But the United Nations says overall violence is at its worst since the start of the war 10 years ago, despite the presence of more than 130,000 troops in a NATO-led force.


While the Obama administration will focus in coming months on pulling surge forces -- General Allen must submit by April a detailed plan for the 23,000 soldiers to be withdrawn between January and the end of Sept. 2012 -- it is now actively looking beyond that date. A decision does not appear imminent.

"We've repeatedly said that the nature of the drawdown after the surge troops come home will be conditions-based. No decisions have been made," Pentagon spokesman George Little said, without directly addressing the White House request.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that, "it's too early to draft up firm or specific force drawdown plans for 2013 and 2014 when the leaves have barely started to fall in late 2011."

Yet Obama's intentions to curtail the U.S. military footprint overseas seem clear. Making the surprise announcement last month that Washington would abandon efforts to secure an extended troop presence in Iraq, Obama repeated his claim that the "tide of war is receding."

"When I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in both these wars," Obama said. "By the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and make no mistake: it will continue to go down."

The desire to bring the Afghan war to an end is shared by Washington's NATO partners, who are wrapped up in their own fiscal crises and likewise plan to bring their troops home.


The early planning appears linked to efforts to conclude a strategic partnership deal with the shaky government led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which the administration hopes to seal with an international conference to be held in Bonn, Germany, in early December, or by year's end.

The administration's ambitions reflect not just mounting public weariness with the war and its giant costs, but also growing exasperation with Pakistan, which Washington accuses of backing insurgents fueling violence in Afghanistan.

- Reuters


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