The commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan said Thursday that he has asked his officers to provide "initial assessments" of where he can begin to "thin out" his forces. U.S. Army General David Petraeus made the comment to a small group of reporters only days after receiving the last of the American surge forces President Barack Obama ordered to the country.
General Petraeus said he asked his staff to make plans to reduce their forces in relatively stable areas, as he prepares for a progress report he must give to NATO leaders at their summit in two months.
"Commanders are providing input - still very early days, very initial assessments. And that's what we're working on at the moment, providing that up the chain of command. And then as we get closer and closer to Lisbon we'll refine that each month, add to the granularity of it, and then hope to have the best projects that we can by the time of Lisbon," he said.
Petraeus is up against a deadline set by President Obama to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal next July. He also faces impatience from many European nations with troops here, even though the last of the surge forces only arrived during the last few days. The general indicated he does not expect to send home large units or to hand over large areas to Afghan security control. Rather, he said, at the beginning of the process, he will do what the United States did in Iraq and elsewhere - gradually reduce the U.S. troop presence in specific areas.
"You thin out, you don't just sort of hand them the baton and say, 'It's yours,'" he said.
U.S. officials say the initial withdrawal will be small and that additional drawdowns will be based on security conditions in each part of the country.
Petraeus indicated that the Afghan government's efforts to reintegrate Taliban fighters into society is beginning to move forward, with more than 100 fighters signing up for the program even before it became official in recent days. He acknowledged the numbers are small so far. But he said the more difficult process of reconciliation with Taliban leaders is also showing signs of life.
"The prospect for reconciliation with senior Taliban leaders certainly looms out there. And there have been approaches at very senior levels that hold some promise. And President Karzai's 'red lines' have been very clear on this, and those are certainly ones that we support," the general said.
Those "red lines," or non-negotiable conditions, include recognizing the constitution and the authority of the government, and pledging not to engage in violence.
Petraeus also said that despite recent tensions over several issues, including what many officials in the United States see as inadequate Afghan efforts to fight corruption, his relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai is good.
"I think it's a relationship in which there is candor. We do not always come at every issue from the same perspective. But I think that's a reflection of the strength of the relationship, rather than anything else," he said.
Petraeus said both sides are concerned about issues such as civilian casualties and the need to improve the justice system. But he acknowledged that they do not always have the same priorities or specific plans.