Obama’s next big Afghan battle: How many troops to withdraw

US President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, December 3, 2010.

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Wilson, the Washington Post:  President Obama’s national security team this week revisited the same vexing issues it worked through a year ago in devising the administration’s troop escalation in Afghanistan. This time, one key element was missing: impassioned dissent.

While the group concluded that Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy is showing signs of progress, divisions persist beneath the appearance of harmony. But skeptics in the administration have decided to hold their fire until late next spring, when Obama must decide how many troops he intends to withdraw starting in July to fulfill a pledge he made when he announced a troop increase last December. …

"The real debate will occur when we have to determine how big the July ’11 drawdown will be," said a senior administration official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

One military officer said, "There still are some very significant differences of opinion."

Vice President Biden and others argued forcefully last year against the military’s request for more forces to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Voicing concern about incompetent government in Afghanistan, insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and plummeting public support in the United States, they sought to focus U.S. combat power on a narrower mission of targeting al-Qaeda members and their Taliban allies.

The skeptics chose not to revive the debate, the officials said, because this fall did not seem like the right time to argue for troop reductions.

This review, which began in October and was led by the National Security Council, was intended to be more diagnostic than prescriptive. An even more significant reason was that recent military operations around the city of Kandahar have progressed more quickly and successfully than expected. Efforts to train the Afghan army and police also are ahead of schedule. …

The possibility that the skeptics may use the military’s upbeat reports to push for an accelerated reduction has alarmed some in the Pentagon, who question whether Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, has been too vocal in his claims of progress this fall. "Kabul has been focused on December when the real battle in Washington will be later on," a senior military official said. …

"There’s no question we’re going to begin removing troops beginning July 2011," said a third senior administration official involved in the Afghanistan policy debate. "When we start to go over the hump in July, it will be part of a broader discussion about our partners bearing a larger share of the burden, including the Afghans."  (photo: Getty)

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