Steeper Pullout Is Raised as Option for Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s national security team is contemplating troop reductions in Afghanistan that would be steeper than those discussed even a few weeks ago, with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden, which they called new “strategic considerations.”

These new considerations, along with a desire to find new ways to press the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to get more of his forces to take the lead, are combining to create a counterweight to an approach favored by the departing secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, and top military commanders in the field. They want gradual cuts that would keep American forces at a much higher combat strength well into next year, senior administration officials said.

The cost of the war and Mr. Karzai’s uneven progress in getting his forces prepared have been latent issues since Mr. Obama took office. But in recent weeks they have gained greater political potency as Mr. Obama’s newly refashioned national security team takes up the crucial decision of the size and the pace of American troop cuts, administration and military officials said. Mr. Obama is expected to address these decisions in a speech to the nation this month, they said.

A sharp drawdown of troops is one of many options Mr. Obama is considering. The National Security Council is convening its monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, and although the debate over troop levels is operating on a separate track, the assessments from that meeting are likely to inform the decisions about the size of the force.

In a range of interviews in the past few days, several senior Pentagon, military and administration officials said that many of these pivotal questions were still in flux and would be debated intensely over the next two weeks. They would not be quoted by name about an issue that Mr. Obama had yet to decide on.

Before the new thinking, American officials were anticipating an initial drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Those advocating steeper troop reductions did not propose a withdrawal schedule.

Mr. Gates, on his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, argued repeatedly on Sunday that pulling out too fast would threaten the gains the American-led coalition had made in the 18 months since Mr. Obama agreed to a “surge” of 30,000 troops.

“I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on — I think that’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Gates told troops at Forward Operating Base Dwyer. “I’d opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first.”

But the latest strategy review is about far more than how many troops to take out in July, Mr. Gates and other senior officials said over the weekend. It is also about setting a final date by which all of the 30,000 surge troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

A separate timetable would dictate the departure of all foreign troops by 2014, including about 70,000 troops who were there before the surge, as agreed to by NATO and the Afghan government.

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Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, sounded a cautious note about the state of the war in a telephone interview on Sunday. Although General Petraeus said there was “no question” that the Americans and the Afghans had made military progress in the crucial provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the south, he said the Taliban were moving to reconstitute after the beating they took this past fall and winter.

“We’ve always said they would be compelled to try to come back,” General Petraeus said, adding that the Taliban would be trying to “regain the momentum they had a year ago.”

General Petraeus declined to discuss the withdrawal of American forces in July or the number he might recommend to the president. Late last week Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that General Petraeus had not yet submitted his recommended withdrawal number.

The decisions on force levels in Afghanistan could mirror how Mr. Obama handled the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Senior Pentagon officials noted that after Mr. Obama set a firm deadline for dropping to 50,000 troops in Iraq, he then let his commanders in Baghdad manage the specifics of which units to order home and when. The argument over where to set those “bookends” promises to be one of the most consequential and contentious of Mr. Obama’s presidency. It also has major implications for his re-election bid.

At one end of the debate is Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and, presumably, a range of Mr. Obama’s political advisers, who opposed the surge in 2009 and want a rapid exit, keeping in place a force focused on counterterrorism and training.

At the other end is Mr. Gates, who leaves office at the end of the month and who won the 2009 debate over the troop surge along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and senior commanders on the ground.

It is not clear what Mrs. Clinton’s position is now as the internal debate is rejoined, and Mr. Obama’s team has changed considerably in the past 18 months. Thomas E. Donilon, appointed national security adviser last fall, was leery of the surge and is likely to lean toward a speedier withdrawal, colleagues say.

Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, supports greater use of unmanned drone technology and will have a voice as Mr. Gates’s nominated successor. General Petraeus is leaving his post in Afghanistan shortly to head the C.I.A., assuming he is confirmed by the Senate this summer.

In the past, when administration officials were asked about the pace of withdrawal, they often said it would depend on “conditions on the ground” — in other words, assessments of the strength of the Taliban, the pace at which Afghan troops and police are prepared to take over and the progress of the economic and political rebuilding of the country. “Most of those would weigh in favor of staying longer,” one senior official said.

But the growing list of so-called strategic considerations amounts to countervailing factors, senior officials said. Mr. Obama has said his goal is to dismantle Al Qaeda so that it can never use Afghanistan again to initiate a Sept. 11-style attack.

With the killing of Bin Laden, and with other members of the terrorist group on the run as American officials pick up clues from data seized at the Bin Laden compound, Mr. Obama can argue that Al Qaeda is much diminished.

The pressure to show Democrats that the cost of the war is declining is intense — so intense that Mr. Gates, during his travels, warned against undercutting a decade-long investment by cutting budgets too rapidly.

The Penatagon says the war in Afghanistan costs about $2 billion a week.

David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thom Shanker from Forward Operating Base Dwyer, Afghanistan. Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.