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Obama Still Mulling Afghanistan Troop Drawdown

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday had another in a series of regular meetings with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will be among key advisers making recommendations about the size and scope of a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July.  

Questions about when Mr. Obama will actually receive formal recommendations from Defense Secretary Gates and military commanders have been a daily feature of White House news briefings for weeks.

The White House response has been consistent. Spokesman Jay Carney tells reporters the president continues to hold regular meetings with Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other members of his national security team.

Gates has made clear he believes the beginning of a U.S. troop drawdown should be modest in terms of numbers, and ensure that the U.S. maintains a strong combat troop presence.

Media reports in recent weeks, quoting various un-named administration officials, have speculated on the size of the drawdown, mentioning figures ranging from 3,000 or 5,000 troops to much higher.

In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Gates insisted that Afghanistan is "not a war without end" and underscored the danger of allowing failure of the mission. "I know people are frustrated, the country has been at war for 10 years," he said. "I know people are tired, but people also have to think in terms of stability and in terms of the potential for reconstitution (of Taliban and al-Qaida), what is the cost of failure?"

One recent report in the on line publication The Daily Beast quoted anonymous administration officials as saying the president may unveil a plan involving a slow withdrawal over a period of 12 to 18 months of as many as 30,000 troops.

As that and other reports noted, this would be the number of U.S troops Mr. Obama sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge in late 2009 aimed at pushing back Taliban advances.

Spokesman Carney declined to say whether the withdrawal itself was on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting with Secretary Gates, adding that Afghanistan routinely comes up in such meetings.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, is in Washington.  The primary purpose is to prepare for the U.S. Senate hearing next week to confirm his nomination as the new CIA director.

Carney was evasive on the question of meetings between General Petraeus and the president. "I don't have any announcements about meetings, but I think it is fair to, I'll simply refer you to what I have said in the past, which is that the president will have discussions with General Petraeus, who is the commanding general in Afghanistan, and others to hear their ideas and their recommendations about the beginning of a drawdown, which I hasten to remind people is the implementation of a policy that he articulated in December 2009, including specifically the fact that we will begin the drawdown in July of 2011," he said.

President Obama continues to face pressures from Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry, called Afghan war costs of $10 billion a day "unsustainable" and urged a speeding up of troop withdrawals.

Anti-war sentiment could be heard in remarks by Massachusetts Democrat Congressman Jim McGovern who told reporters after a meeting earlier this month with the president that Americans "have had it" with the war in Afghanistan. "I think people have had enough, I think the American people are ahead of Congress and ahead of the administration on the issue of the war in Afghanistan, I think we need to bring our troops home where they belong," he said.

On Wednesday, a group of 27 U.S. senators, Democrats and one Independent, sent a letter to President Obama urging what they called a "sizable and sustained" drawdown and a shift of course in U.S. strategy.

The lawmakers said the primary objectives for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan - removal of the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaida, the killing of Osama bin Laden and disruption of terrorist networks allied with al-Qaida - have largely been met.

In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another influential senator, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued that the 30,000 U.S. troop surge is "beginning to pay off" and supported a modest reduction. "A modest reduction this summer is called for, achievable and would not undercut the overall effort.  The goal to transition to Afghan security force control by 2014 is very much possible if we continue the training, equipping and the general effort to build capacity," he said.

Senator Graham cautioned against "losing the momentum" in Afghanistan, and warned against Congress accelerating a withdrawal schedule "because it is popular at home" saying this undercuts gains in Afghanistan.

Recent media reports have also speculated about a struggle in the internal administration discussion involving, the reports say, differences between advisers to Mr. Obama, not only about the size of a drawdown but overall strategy going forward.

In responding to numerous questions, the White House continues to stress that while the president will have options before him that will be reviewed and discussed, the process leading to a final decision does not involve any major re-opening of the overall Afghanistan strategy laid out in December of 2009.

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