US officials debate speeding up Afghan withdrawal

Obama administration discusses reduced forces due to recent incidents in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops, possibly more, by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has 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 significant setbacks to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan — the killings on Sunday of Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army staff sergeant and the violence touched off by last month’s burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.

Administration officials cautioned on Monday that no decisions on additional troop cuts have been made, and in an interview President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Afghan mission, warning against “a rush for the exits” amid questions about the U.S. 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,” Obama said in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.

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 U.S. troops, although 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 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 Joe Biden 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.

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end.

Their resistance puts 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.