Obama faces a tension between calls by Democrats and even some Republicans to wind down the war more quickly and the military's desire to avoid a too-fast pullout that might squander hard-won sacrifices.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has not yet recommended to Obama a specific pace of withdrawals for 2013. But during the Pentagon chief's two-day visit to the war zone this past week, commanders suggested that things are going better than is generally believed by an American public weary of war after 11 years.
Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, for example, cited "astounding" progress in the Zaray district of Kandahar province, where the Taliban once held sway. He said Afghan forces are now "dominating" in that district. Abrams is the top coalition commander in southern Afghanistan.
Abrams told reporters he foresees a smaller coalition force by next summer, but he was not recommending or predicting any U.S. reductions. He was arguing that Afghan forces are performing so well that they should be able to hold their ground in 2013 with less coalition combat power.
No decision on 2013 U.S. troop withdrawals is likely to be announced until after Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Obama in Washington in early January. The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta announced in Kabul on Thursday that Karzai had agreed to go to Washington the week of Jan. 7 to discuss the pace of coalition troop withdrawals as well as a U.S. military role in his country after December 2014, when the international coalition's combat mission is to end.
Obama withdrew 23,000 U.S. troops this year, following a drawdown of 10,000 in 2011. There have been calls in Congress for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal next year, and from commanders' own assessments of progress, it appears such a speedup could be coming.
Commanders portrayed the Taliban as fraying and failing, though not defeated.
Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the international coalition's deputy chief of staff for operations, said the Taliban had aspired to pull off a series of high-level assassinations in 2012 and regain territory they lost in 2011.
"They have failed at every one" of those objectives, Nicholson told reporters.
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Nicholson also said, by way of illustrating how much things have changed in Afghanistan in recent years, that in the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, U.S. Marines are now complaining of boredom because there is so little fighting for them to do.
He was not arguing for further U.S. troop reductions in 2013 but observing that if Helmand is a model for Afghanistan, it may show that coalition forces can step back and give Afghan forces the lead role without sacrificing security and giving the Taliban new hope for a revival.
Col. Christopher Boyle, the operations chief on Abrams' staff in Kandahar, said the Taliban are facing financial and other pressures.
"More and more we are seeing fracturing" in Taliban leadership circles, Boyle said, with factions fighting each other for territory and resources.
Abrams did acknowledge that the Taliban will keep "coming back" until there is some sort of reconciliation with the Afghan government.
For his part, Panetta has not telegraphed his recommendations to Obama on future troop levels.
The main message of his visit to Afghanistan, possibly his last as defense secretary, was one of reassurance to Afghans that they will not be abandoned after 2014. And he made a pitch for patience among Americans tired of war.
"For the first time since 9/11, we have a chance to achieve the mission that we are embarked upon," Panetta said, alluding to the defeat of al-Qaida and the stabilization of Afghanistan. "To achieve that mission will require a continued commitment, continued perseverance, continued partnership and continued sacrifice on the part of our nations."
Press; By ROBERT BURNS]
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