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U.S. May Start Pulling Out of Afghanistan Next Spring

New York Times | September 14 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 13 - Senior Pentagon and military officials are discussing a proposal to cut American troop levels in Afghanistan next spring, perhaps by as much as 20 percent, the largest withdrawal since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.

The troops would be replaced by NATO soldiers, who now oversee security and reconstruction missions in northern and western Afghanistan and are to take over an American command in the south next spring. American troops have been taxed by lengthy deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Pentagon officials have sought to replace them with indigenous or allied troops.

But Germany, supported by Britain, France and other European allies, said Tuesday at a meeting of defense ministers in Berlin that it strongly opposed any American-backed restructuring of the NATO command structure that could lead to having alliance troops become involved in counterinsurgency.

Because those operations represent a large part of American troop activity in the south, it is not clear whether the reductions can go forward. In the past few months, violence has surged in the south, with Taliban forces conducting a campaign of assassinations and intimidation ahead of elections on Sunday.

Military officials emphasize that any reductions in the nearly American 20,000 troops in Afghanistan hinge on resolution of the details with NATO, successful parliamentary and provincial elections and stable security.

"It makes sense that as NATO forces go in, and they're more in numbers, that we could drop some of the U.S. requirements somewhat," Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head the United States Central Command, said in an interview here on Tuesday.

General Abizaid declined to give an exact number of potential troop cuts. But another senior officer, who spoke anonymously because the decision is not final, said the Pentagon could reduce force levels by as much as 20 percent, or about 4,000 troops.

American officials were quick to note that the United States would still have the largest number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, and would remain committed to ensuring political, economic and security gains in the country.

At the meeting in Berlin, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he would urge the alliance to expand its role in Afghanistan beyond its security and peacekeeping duties.

Although Mr. Rumsfeld emphasized that American troops would continue to handle the counterinsurgency mission "for a time," he said NATO should consider deploying troops to the eastern border region, which the United States oversees and where much of the fighting is occurring. He added that "over time, it would be nice if NATO developed counterterrorism capabilities, which don't exist at the present time."

But the German defense minister, Peter Struck, said merging NATO's peacekeeping mission with the American combat operation under a single commander would fundamentally change NATO's role in Afghanistan and "would make the situation for our soldiers doubly dangerous and worsen the current climate in Afghanistan." Officials in Britain and France also voiced opposition to the idea.

Some American officials played down the dispute, saying that while they were seeking to combine the operations of American and NATO forces, they were not committed to any particular approach, and that a consensus would be worked out.

To overcome European opposition, the Pentagon is proposing, among other ideas, a joint NATO command structure in which countries willing to contribute troops to counterinsurgency would be under one officer, while allies that want to continue to conduct peacekeeping and other noncombat roles would fall under another. The two contingents would fall under one overall commander.

Both France and Germany have small special forces involved in combat alongside American troops, but most of the European contribution is to the 11,000 officers in the International Security Assistance Force, which conducts peacekeeping and security duties in Kabul and in the north and west.

Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have already agreed to take over the NATO command in the south, where American troops have clashed with Taliban, in particular north of Kandahar. But it is unclear if the force in the south will be intended for counterinsurgency.

American commanders say they are bracing for factional violence to extend through the ballot-counting process and until the new legislators are seated in December or January. “We have to be prepared for uncertainty after the announcement of the candidates,” Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview.


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