Gen. Petraeus would endorse 30,000 troops home by end of 2012

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan is expected to be confirmed by September as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, would endorse a presidential announcement that the 30,000 troops committed as part of a 2009 surge to the country would be back home by end of 2012, military and administration officials tell National Journal.

Formally, Petraeus wants to withdraw one brigade combat team of about 5,000 troops by the end of the year, and another 5,000 by the spring of next year. But mindful that the political environment in the U.S. and in Congress has turned sharply against the war, Petraeus is aware that the extra brigades he inherited cannot remain in place through 2014, when control of the country's security is scheduled to be officially turned over to indigenous Afghan forces.

Petraeus is expected to be confirmed as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency by September. He wants his successor, Lt. Gen. John Allen, to keep the extra brigades operational as long as possible. If they stay in the theater until the end of 2012, their force presence would equal the duration that troops surged to Iraq spent there.

Petraeus will spend this week in Washington, participating in deliberations with the White House and members of the National Security Council. Leon Panetta, the current CIA director who is expected to be confirmed shortly as secretary of Defense, is playing a particularly influential role in the discussions, officials said. Panetta has not endorsed a particular course of action, instead urging the president to be guided by intelligence assessments.

A senior administration official said that President Obama has not decided what to do or say. "He is reviewing many inputs, of which [Petraeus's] is a very important one," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter freely.

Obama's goals for the war remain roughly the same as they were in December 2009, when he told an audience of cadets and officers at West Point that he aimed to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" Al Qaeda's terrorist network by preventing a resurgence of the Taliban and by training Afghan security forces to fill the gap.

Several Obama advisers hoped success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan would allow the president to expedite the slope of troop withdrawals beginning in July.

Obama, the administration official said, does not "disaggregate the CT and COIN debates in a reprise of the 2009 narrative. We see both parts as enabling each other, and in addition to seeing key counterterrorism successes we also see very important successes in terms of stopping the Taliban momentum and building up the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces."

Intelligence assessments of Al Qaeda's network based on information collected at Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan suggest that leaders of the terrorist group were increasingly frustrated that, because of U.S. Special Forces' disruptive activities and CIA drone strikes, operationalizing plots was becoming quite difficult. "We found a lot of evidence of stuff that was supposed to happen and never got to where it needed to go, and then lots of incoming messages wondering why things didn't happen," an official briefed on the intelligence said.

And U.S. officials say the intelligence shows a backlash against the newly appointed Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for being unable to develop a secure and independent courier network to execute attacks.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that 20 of 30 top leaders of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been killed since Obama took office.

The upshot is that the capacity of Al Qaeda has been significantly degraded, and even if the troop withdrawal pace is slow at first, an official said Obama will have to find some way to acknowledge this fact.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Sunday the "war weariness" inside the country, but said that "the president's responsibility, and I have seen this in his predecessors, is to look out for the long-term national security interests of the United States. He has to have a longer view."

And the Taliban remains a problem. Although weakened, it remains a destructive force in many parts of Afghanistan. Discussions with dissident Taliban leaders about joining the Afghan government are still at a nascent stage. A too-rapid early withdrawal could give more aggressive Taliban elements the incentive to punish those engaged in diplomacy.

There are no indications that Obama plans a rapid course correction. His advisers think Americans will give the commander in chief the benefit of the doubt. Still, it will be useful during an election year to point to large numbers of troops coming home. Even Republicans like Mitt Romney, once a stalwart of the party's hawkish wing, have indicated that they see the current war as one being fought for Afghanistan's independence, which the U.S. should step away from.

There are also limits as to how quickly troops can be turned around. And administration official said that it would be unwise to withdraw those troops training Afghan security forces in the middle of their terms.

Obama will announce his decision soon. Guidance about the timing of the announcement is expected later this week. The relative proportion of troops devoted to counterterrorism and to anti-weapons proliferation will probably increase as other combat troops are redeployed home.

There are about 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, along with just under 50,000 other NATO troops.

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