KABUL (Reuters) - The United States will make decisions about when and how fast to withdraw troops from Afghanistan based on military strategy rather than political mandates, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there said on Tuesday.
The United States and its NATO allies are gradually drawing forces out of Afghanistan, and handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, as they seek to curtail their involvement in a long, costly war.
The United States plans to pull out 33,000 troops - that President Barack Obama deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-2010 - by next fall, and the White House has asked the Pentagon to look into further reductions.
But just how many soldiers will go home following the removal of Obama’s “surge” troops is still unclear.
U.S. Marine General John Allen rejected the suggestion of tensions between Washington and military commanders in Kabul on the question of how far and how fast reductions in the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan should be.
“There is zero daylight between the commander of Afghanistan and the commander of chief on the strategy associated with this campaign,” he told reporters accompanying Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on an unannounced visit to Kabul.
A Wall Street Journal article had suggested that Allen, who took command of forces in Afghanistan five months ago, was seeking to delay any further reductions until the end of 2013.
That position might put him at odds with the White House. Obama has promised to responsibly end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. military mission winds down this month.
His commitment to rolling back “the tide of war” that has placed great strain on U.S. finances and its military has been clear as he turns to the struggling U.S. economy ahead of 2012 polls. There has been widespread speculation that Obama will push ahead with a steady or perhaps even accelerated drawdown.
The Wall Street Journal said Allen’s position was in keeping with an internal assessment from NATO leadership in Afghanistan that suggested cutting U.S. troop levels below 68,000 next fall could endanger supply lines and make it harder to protect bases.
“From my perspective there is no number; the president has not given us a number,” Allen said. “What the president has given us is the opportunity to have a strategy-based discussion on the evolving environment in Afghanistan.”
He rejected the idea that political pressures related to Obama’s re-election bid might affect decisions on the drawdown.
“The evolving strategy will be the mechanism by which the troop drawdown will ultimately occur and so I just don’t have that sense that there is a conversation under way that will accelerate this,” he said.
Despite ongoing violence and gloomy prospects for a hoped-for peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government, Western countries plan to remove most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when Afghan soldiers are due to be formally in charge of security across the country.
But the United States is expected to have some sort of troop footprint in Afghanistan after that date, likely focused on targeted operations against militants in the region.
Allen said officials were discussing the NATO strategy for the coming years and suggested foreign troops would increasingly focus on advising Afghan forces that now number over 300,000.
“(The Afghan force) is moving to the fore,” Allen said.
They are better trained and better equipped than for most of the last decade, but there are questions about how well they will be able to battle the Taliban on their own - and how long the West will be willing to underwrite their operations.
Afghanistan is not expected to be able to pay for its own police and soldiers for years to come.
Many U.S. officials also believe that even the best-laid plans in Afghanistan may be undermined with a change of course from neighboring Pakistan.
The situation along the Afghan border has grown even more tense following an incident late last month in which two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO aircraft, infuriating Pakistan and prompting it to shut down supply lines key for NATO operations in Afghanistan. Details of the incident remain murky.
Allen said he spoke with General Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the Pakistani military, by phone on Monday.
“The outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that might have caused this event, but also to ensure that we work closely together because the border is always going to be there.” He said the supply routes were not discussed.