The White House has asked the Pentagon for initial recommendations for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, a first step in 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, Defence 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 September 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.
Regarding Afghanistan, 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 October 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.
On Saturday, a suicide car bomber killed 17 people in Kabul, including 13 troops and civilian employees of the NATO-led forces, the latest bold attack in the Afghan capital that deepened questions about security.
BEYOND 2012 DRAWDOWN
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 September 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 Defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that officials were working through various scenarios on what the contours of a post-2014 strategic relationship with Afghanistan might look like.
Still, the official said, 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.
(For a White House graphic of plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/image_file/infographic_roop_levels_afghanistan_iraq.jpg)
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 issue is very simple. You stay, you lose. You leave, you lose, a European official said recently.
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.
We're going to get that done, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity. The Afghans are going to ask us to stay and I think we will.
That agreement is not expected to define how many troops would stay beyond 2014 to help bolster Afghan forces, but would likely commit both sides in principle to a U.S. military presence that would be negotiated in detail in a subsequent Status of Forces agreement.
I think it will outline the broad types of things that U.S. forces will do, the official said.
James Dobbins, a former White House official, said Obama's decision on a final drawdown schedule would be based on suggestions from his military advisors.
(Similar troop) decisions have been hotly argued, but it wasn't like the Bush administration where decisions were made before commanders were consulted, Dobbins said.
Yet many security experts voiced worries that the drawdown would be defined by a Washington-driven timeline at the expense of judgments made on the battlefield.
The idea that as of today in 2011 that you could plot out a trajectory for a troop withdrawal seems to be divorced from the conditions on the ground, said Daniel Markey, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
That said, you would have to expect that this administration would have to make preliminary plans.
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 fuelling violence in Afghanistan.
While Obama will take such factors into account before announcing a decision on the next drawdown steps, which could come at a NATO summit in Chicago in May or before, changes will be unlikely once the president settles on a drawdown schedule.
News of the drawdown plans is likely to intensify worries in Kabul that, despite the repeated U.S. pledges of a long-term presence, the Afghan government will be left in the lurch.
Western officials believe that much progress has been made and is being made for a successful transition to proceed, and will stick to the actual 2014 timeframe. We believe that realities on the ground indicate something else, one senior Afghan official said on condition of anonymity.
If enough progress is not made, and 2014 is just seen as a date to leave, we will face serious problems.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Magnowski and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Warren Strobel and Anthony Boadle)