President Obama has committed to start removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July.
Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus has not yet submitted his much-anticipated recommendations for reducing the size of his fighting force, but Pentagon leaders are well aware the clock is ticking down to the July goal to begin troop withdrawals, the military's top officer said Thursday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that Petraeus's recommendation will "kick off the process" and will be key to any decisions made. The ultimate decision, though, he stressed, will be President Obama's.
"Certainly we're all aware that the president has committed to a decision to start [withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan] in July," Mullen said. "We think the process will move forward here pretty rapidly, certainly within the next few weeks."
Mullen did not discuss how many of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops could leave Afghanistan this summer. "I can honestly say nobody knows what the answer is at this given point in time," Mullen said.
But the four-star admiral, who plans to retire on September 30, says any military recommendation on troop withdrawals will not be a setback for security gains made in the fragile country.
There has been mounting political pressure to accelerate the withdrawal in the weeks following the military raid that took out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But Mullen on Thursday said it is "way too early to accurately assess the impact of bin Laden's death" in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
In terms of Pakistan, Mullen said he remains committed to maintaining military-to-military relations with Islamabad despite strains in the two countries' relationships since bin Laden was found living in a compound in Pakistan.
"We all agree we're going through a pretty tough time right now and that's going to continue," he said. But Mullen, who traveled to Pakistan last week, added that the "worst thing we could do would be to cut them off."
Mullen did acknowledge that the United States has made "very significant" cuts in its military training with Pakistan. "This reduction comes on top of a considerable expansion over the course of the last two years," he said.