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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 by as much as 20 percent next spring, 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.


Throughout Afghanistan on Tuesday, the American military continued gearing up for an anticipated spike in insurgent attacks just before the voting. Virtually all American troops will stand by, out of sight, to safeguard some 6,200 polling stations, which will be ringed with Afghan soldiers and police officers.


Attacks against American forces are down slightly from a year ago, commanders said, but this year's violence has been deadlier, with assassinations and roadside bombings killing 2 candidates for Parliament and at least 16 others.


Sixty-nine American service members have been killed in Afghanistan this year, the deadliest for United States troops there since the war in 2001. Some deaths resulted from stepped-up American offensives in areas sympathetic to the Taliban. Lt. Col. Gerald J. O'Hara, a military spokesman, said coalition troops had killed about 600 insurgents since March.


Maj. Gen. Jason K. Kamiya, the American commander of daily tactical operations in Afghanistan, gave details on a new plan to outfit Afghan soldiers to fight through the winter, when both insurgent and allied troops usually curtail operations because heavy snows make travel through mountainous regions extremely difficult.


General Kamiya said in an interview that he wanted to keep the pressure on Taliban fighters as they leave their summer fighting positions for sanctuary in Pakistan or deep in the Afghan interior.


He said he was also planning to spend $68 million in reconstruction projects by next spring in an effort to show the Afghan people that combat operations were pushing ahead along with improvements to their villages and towns.


In a similar effort to impress villagers in the Taliban heartland, Army engineers and the Agency for International Development recently completed a $35 million, 74-mile road connecting Kandahar to Tarin Kwot, cutting a bone-jarring 11-hour drive to 3 hours.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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