US could move faster on Afghanistan troop withdrawals

Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, today told fellow Nato ministers meeting in Brussels that there should be, "no rush for the exits" as the alliance draws down its forces in Afghanistan.

He was responding to concerns that Washington's imminent announcement of troop reduction plans could trigger a wave of pull outs.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Robert Gates addressed US troops on his latest trip to Afghanistan

Mr Gates has just returned from a final trip to Afghanistan (he is expected to step down from his job next month) and will soon put forward the official Pentagon view about how quickly and deeply the US can cut its force of nearly 94,000.

The issue has caused a lively debate in the White House, but it appears that the Obama Administration will move faster rather than slower when it announces the reductions set to start in July.

Some have characterised the current battle as one between generals and politicians. But it is more accurate to say it has played out between those who believe in a slow drawdown - notably Mr Gates and General David Petraeus, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan - and those who argue that it should be speeded up.

The Afghan surge of more than 30,000 troops was announced in December 2009, following requests for more troops from the then commander General Stan McChrystal.

Calculations about how long this additional force should stay remained classified in his report, though I can reveal that Gen McChrystal envisaged a fast drawdown: 40,000 troops during the first year of the process.

Gen Petraeus on the other hand has always been much more circumspect about promising a rapid exit, and was last year heard to describe the July 2011 milestone, as 'an aspiration' rather than a firm target.

As his president's desire to start the process on time has hardened, Gen Petraeus conceded that something would have to begin this summer, and that it must involve significant units rather than just token ones.

Even last November, at Nato's summit in Lisbon, the Petraeus/Gates view held sway. The alliance shied away from specific proposals and insisted that the pull out would be 'conditions based' - in other words that it could be slowed down if there were reverses in the field.

Those who have followed this thinking were expecting the July announcement to start the withdrawal of units numbering 5-6,000. Steps beyond that would have followed the Lisbon formulation of being based upon progress on the ground.

Thinking in the White House has changed though. The evidence so far of the 'fighting season' that began in April is that Nato casualties will not be any lower this summer than last - despite the claims by many military leaders to have taken the initiative from the Taliban.

This has empowered sceptics in Washington (and indeed London) who believe that the military has had its chance, as has the government of President Hamid Karzai, and that it is now time to start cutting the cost of the whole venture. The killing of Osama bin Laden has boosted the 'faster rather than slower' lobby that includes Vice President Joe Biden.

It is clear that the strongest voices in favour of the cautious approach were those of Mr Gates and Gen Petraeus. President Obama's recent re-shuffle of national security leaders will though move CIA director Leon Panetta to run the Pentagon, and put Gen Petraeus in his stead, running the espionage agency in Langley. Thus at one stroke the two most cautious figures in Afghan strategy will have been removed from the drawdown equation.

Barring serious military reverses this summer, the scene is set for deep cuts in US forces over the next year. And if field commanders grumble, those who want out will always be able to say that they are only following the planning originally set out by Gen McChrystal.