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Obama to unveil Afghan cutback

Drawdown pressure comes from all sides

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is expected to unveil his U.S. troop reduction plan for Afghanistan next week, buoyed by assessments by senior Defense officials that the U.S. war strategy is headed in the right direction and has weakened the Taliban-led insurgency.

But some U.S. officials in Washington and in Afghanistan are concerned that many of the gains aren’t sustainable, and conditions are too fragile to allow for the “significant” troop drawdown that Obama is being pressured to begin next month by some top aides and growing numbers of lawmakers of both parties.

Violence is worse, many Taliban appear to have moved elsewhere rather than fight U.S. forces surged into the south, the Afghan government and security forces remain far from capable, and counterinsurgency cooperation with Pakistan is all but frozen, these U.S. officials said.

“The situation is terrible. Has there been a qualitative change that disadvantages the opposition and advantages the (U.S.-led) coalition? I don’t buy it,” said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “The Taliban remains a clever, adaptive enemy.”

Moreover, there has been no apparent progress toward convening talks on a political settlement with the Taliban following three secret meetings between a senior U.S. diplomat and a former top aide to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader based in southwestern Pakistan.

While the U.S. surge has dealt the insurgents major setbacks and Osama bin Laden is dead, Omar and other hard-liners have few incentives to negotiate given the growing domestic pressure on Obama to begin withdrawing U.S. troops and meet a 2014 deadline for all combat forces to be out, some experts said.

“We have to display steadfastness, cohesion and purpose, and I think all of those things are in doubt about us,” said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul from 2004 to 2007.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, submitted his drawdown options this week to the White House, where they are so tightly held that administration spokesmen refused to confirm when Obama would announce his final decision.

But a senior U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the plan, said Obama is expected to unveil his plan next week.

Petraeus’ proposal includes a recommendation to shift U.S. surge troops out of parts of southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces to eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, where the Taliban and allied groups maintain sanctuaries, according to several U.S. officials who requested anonymity.

Obama pledged to begin withdrawing some of the 100,000 U.S. troops next month in a Dec. 1, 2009, speech in which he laid out his strategy to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that would allow al-Qaida to re-establish a sanctuary in the war-ravaged country of 36 million.

Obama is under considerable pressure to pull out a significant portion of the 30,000 additional soldiers he ordered there for a surge, mostly in the Taliban’s southern strongholds, from members of both parties eager to reduce federal spending, and from the majority of Americans weary of the nearly decade-old war.


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