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US Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout

President Barack Obama talks with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

Washington – The Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.

Accelerating the withdrawal of United States forces has been under consideration for weeks by senior White House officials, but those discussions are now taking place in the context of two major setbacks to American efforts in Afghanistan — the killings on Sunday of Afghan civilians attributed to a United States Army staff sergeant and the violence touched off by burning of Korans last month by American troops.

Administration officials cautioned on Monday that no decisions on additional troop cuts have been made, and in a radio interview President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Afghan mission in spite of the recent setbacks, warning against “a rush for the exits” amid questions about the American war strategy. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

The United States now has just under 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 22,000 of them due home by September. There has been no schedule set for the withdrawal of the remaining 68,000 American troops, although Mr. Obama said last year that the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace” until the United States handed over security to the Afghan forces in 2014.

At least three options are now under consideration, according to officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. One plan, backed by Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, would be to announce that at least 10,000 more troops would come home by the end of December, and then 10,000 to 20,000 more by June 2013.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been pushing for a bigger withdrawal that would reduce the bulk of the troops around the same time the mission shifts to a support role, leaving behind Special Operations teams to conduct targeted raids. Mr. Biden has long said that the United States mission in Afghanistan is too broad and should focus primarily on a narrow counterterrorism mission against insurgents seeking to attack the United States.

Mr. Obama’s military commanders, meanwhile, want to maintain troops in Afghanistan as long as possible. If cuts have to be made, the commanders favor making them at the end of 2013, after the fighting season is largely finished. Any troop cuts made midyear would mean that those forces would not be available during the main fighting season, which runs from spring to early fall.

“We’ve come up with several options, but they’re back-of-the-envelope options,” said a senior military official, who said the internal discussions were just now beginning to focus on the costs, logistics and security risks of each plan.

Additional troop reductions would be consistent with a shift in mission that Mr. Obama plans to announce at a meeting of NATO members in Chicago in May. Under this plan, American troops would step away from the lead combat role to a supporting mission focused primarily on counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces. Mr. Obama will not announce the next troop reduction at the NATO meeting, aides said on Monday, but the size of the reduction will flow from the NATO decision on when to shift the mission in Afghanistan from combat to support.

In his news conference last week, Mr. Obama called the goal for the NATO meeting to make “sure that the transition is not a cliff, but that there are benchmarks and steps that are taken along the way.”

Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of the president’s senior national security advisers, said in an interview on Monday that “the trajectory we’ve set here is one of transition and Afghan sovereignty.” He added, “We have a goal here of having the Afghans move into the lead and having us steadily pulling back.”

Once the United States and its allies agree on the timing for the shift in mission —Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has already said that it will take place as early as mid-2013 — the administration must decide exactly when the remaining 68,000 troops will come home. Already, debate there has fallen along familiar lines, according to the officials.

Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, is expected to face tough questioning on the mission and the pace of withdrawal in Congressional hearings scheduled for next week. “The campaign is sound,” General Allen said in an interview on Monday with Wolf Blitzer of CNN. “It is solid. It does not contemplate, at this time, any form of an accelerated drawdown.”

His comments were similar to those of Mr. Panetta, who told reporters on Monday while flying to Kyrgyzstan that the killings of Afghan civilians a day earlier would not undermine United States strategy in Afghanistan or speed up a planned drawdown of American troops over the next two years.

One prominent supporter of the Afghan mission, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, warned that steep troop cuts before 2014 could jeopardize General Allen’s ability to carry out the mission. “You don’t put a man in charge of a war and undercut his ability to do his job,” Mr. Graham said in a telephone interview.

The shootings on Sunday, and the burning of the Korans, come at a time when Afghans seem increasingly uncertain about their country’s fate once the Americans withdraw. Asylum applications to other countries are at an all-time high, while passport applications have overwhelmed the Afghan Foreign Ministry’s ability to process them. More than 500 people line up outside the passport office in Kabul every morning even in the bitterest weather.

Many respected Afghans have fled the country or lost their jobs, including the head of the country’s Central Bank and the deputy head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, analysts say the Afghan economy appears more and more to be built on the Western aid that has enriched the country’s elite, who have taken much of the money out of the country. Cash moving through Kabul International Airport has gone up drastically in the past year, so that now about $4 billion is leaving the country, in a legitimate annual economy of about $15 billion.

Little of that is expected to be mentioned publicly at the Chicago meeting. Mr. Obama and the NATO allies, European and American officials said, must instead present a picture of success that includes the possibility of reconciliation talks with the Taliban and a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done.

“The critical issue in Chicago is for the president to make the case that the military picture is good, the insurgency has been weakened, and the Afghan security forces are ready to take over,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official under the Obama administration who worked on these issues. “And that reconciliation is under way.”

Mr. Obama will be discussing the NATO mission in Afghanistan when he meets with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain on Tuesday and Wednesday. A European official said Monday that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. “The most important thing now is the messaging,” the official said.

Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin, Matthew Rosenberg, Graham Bowley and Rod Nordland from Kabul, Afghanistan, and by Elisabeth Bumiller en route to Kyrgyzstan.

This article, “U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout,” originally appeared in The New York Times.