WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The White House has asked the Pentagon for initial recommendations for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, a first step in planning the final U.S. drawdown there despite a bleak security outlook.
Sources familiar with the discussions said President Barack Obama's top aides have asked for scenarios for 2014. As part of that process, the Pentagon must look at troop levels for 2013 -- suggesting deeper withdrawals beyond the removal, by next September, of the 33,000 surge troops Obama deployed in a bid to turn around the flagging decade-old conflict.
"Planning for troop levels in 2013 and 2014 is now in a preliminary phase," said Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer who chaired the review of Afghan policy Obama ordered when he took office in 2009 and retains close White House ties.
Obama and allied leaders committed last year to turning security in Afghanistan over to Afghan control by 2014. And on a trip to Asia last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan, was developing a plan to gradually withdraw U.S. forces.
But it has not been previously reported that the White House requested detailed planning to see that goal through.
The efforts to chart the course out of Afghanistan come as the White House takes decisive steps to end the bloody, costly wars that defined the decade following the September 11 attacks and refocus on an ailing U.S. economy and the 2012 election.
Last month, Obama announced he was pulling remaining U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
Regarding Afghanistan, the White House has not publicly announced its plans beyond the September 2012 drawdown of the surge troops.
"The President will make decisions on the size and shape of our post-September 2012 presence at the appropriate time, in consultation with our Afghan and NATO partners," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Even as the Obama administration presses ahead with its drawdown plans, security remains troubling on the ground and the Afghan government remains perilously weak and corrupt.
A plan to aggressively shrink a U.S. force that will be about 68,000-strong in October 2012 will not sit well with the Pentagon, which wants to hold on to a larger force for as long as possible as it seeks to make security gains permanent.
The Pentagon claims to have driven Taliban insurgents out of many of their southern strongholds. But the United Nations says overall violence is at its worst since the start of the war 10 years ago, despite the presence of more than 130,000 troops in a NATO-led force.
On Saturday, a suicide car bomber killed 17 people in Kabul, including 13 troops and civilian employees of the NATO-led forces, the latest bold attack in the Afghan capital that deepened questions about security.
BEYOND 2012 DRAWDOWN
While the Obama administration will focus in coming months on pulling surge forces -- General Allen must submit by April a detailed plan for the 23,000 soldiers to be withdrawn between January and the end of September 2012 -- it is now actively looking beyond that date. A decision does not appear imminent.
"We've repeatedly said that the nature of the drawdown after the surge troops come home will be conditions-based. No decisions have been made," Pentagon spokesman George Little said, without directly addressing the White House request.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that officials were "working through various scenarios on what the contours of a post-2014 strategic relationship with Afghanistan might look like."
Still, the official said, "it's too early to draft up firm or specific force drawdown plans for 2013 and 2014 when the leaves have barely started to fall in late 2011."