WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, with Osama bin Laden dead and a fiscal crisis on his hands at home, looks set to announce an initial U.S. troop withdrawal from the costly Afghan war that could be larger than previously expected.
Some current and former officials say Obama could easily announce a pullout of at least 10,000 troops over the next year as the administration seeks to capitalize on gains against the Taliban in the south and the Navy SEAL raid last month that killed the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
At the start of this year, with violence raging after nearly a decade of war, a minimal pullout of less than 5,000 troops had been anticipated.
Obama has made no final decision and, as far as is known, has received no formal recommendations from the Pentagon about how many soldiers should be pulled starting in July from the 100,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, is expected to present his recommendations in the next week or so to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Obama, who sent 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan after a reassessment of the U.S. war strategy in late 2009, will confer with his inner circle and inform Americans in mid- to late June of how he plans to begin withdrawing U.S. forces. As the West looks to leave, Afghan forces are slated to slowly take over from foreign forces by the end of 2014.
Senior U.S. officials declined to speculate about the size of the drawdown. Petraeus, the politically savvy general who Obama has tapped to be his next CIA boss, is holding his cards close to his chest as he seeks to avoid leaks that could damage his standing with the White House.
“The president has said he wants the withdrawal to start in July and to be meaningful,” one senior defense official said. “Those are the discussions that have to happen.”
Anthony Cordesman, a former defense official and military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a drawdown of some 15,000 soldiers over the next year would balance political and military concerns without endangering the overall counter-insurgency campaign.
“It shows you’re serious about reductions. It’s the first step in this transition process to 2014,” he said.
White House discussions on the Afghan war, a potential drag for Obama as he eyes his 2012 re-election bid, are tilting subtly toward the so-called counter-terrorism model favored by Vice President Joe Biden, which relies on targeted raids rather than a heavy footprint of regular combat troops.
The perceived success of special forces raids in Afghanistan over the past year, together with the strike on bin Laden, will strengthen those arguing for a faster drawdown, officials say.
The White House may also be more likely to favor a faster withdrawal as Obama grapples with pressure to cut spending and battles Republicans to raise the limit on U.S. borrowing.
Hostility is mounting in both parties toward the war, which now costs over $110 billion a year. Last week, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment that would have required Obama to intensify planning for a withdrawal.
The Pentagon, which under Petraeus has advocated a more troop-heavy counter-insurgency approach similar to what commanders say turned around the war in Iraq, and some NATO partners will likely warn the White House against any moves that might jeopardize hard-won gains against the Taliban.
“I suspect the NATO command in Afghanistan will want to proceed much more cautiously than the White House,” said Andrew Exum, a former advisor to U.S. Central Command who is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank seen as close to the Obama administration.
Some parts of southern Afghanistan are far more secure than they were before Obama’s surge, but militants have spread out across the country and fighting has been heavy along the eastern border with Pakistan.
The Afghan state remains weak and corrupt and many Afghans have seen few changes from a decade of foreign assistance.
If Obama settles on a faster drawdown, he would likely send home a larger number of combat troops, perhaps including a full brigade combat team of up to 5,000 soldiers and other combat forces in addition to support troops.
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and others say that more important than the size of the initial American drawdown is the performance of local forces that are left behind. Afghanistan’s army and police have grown rapidly but local forces struggle with desertion, paltry equipment, illiteracy and even insurgent infiltration.
“You want to thin out in a measured way, where the price of failure for the Afghan forces is a bloody nose and not a broken head,” he said. “The real question is, can you hand over some of the hard areas?”
Some security experts warn the Taliban could regain the upper hand against an inexperienced local military by simply sitting out the drawdown, even a slow one.
“The Taliban are not losing and we are not winning,” said Kamran Bokhari, a South Asia expert at global intelligence firm STRATFOR. “The Taliban doesn’t have to win battles; they just have to stay there, and they do that by walking away from certain battlefields.”
The success of the phased U.S. drawdown may ultimately hinge on the West’s ability to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the insurgent groups it is battling.
The State Department is leading U.S. efforts to move the peace initiative forward, but there are few signs that substantive talks with Taliban leaders, most of whom are believed to live in Pakistan, will soon get underway. Even optimists think a deal could be years in the making.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Jackie Frank