In addition, some commanders have argued that efforts to reach a political settlement with the Taliban — a chief goal of the administration as the war nears its 10th anniversary — would benefit from maintaining military pressure. Obama’s strategy review determined the movement could not be defeated as a political force.
Declining troop numbers also will affect the ability of U.S. government civilians, all of whom operate under military protection, to continue to work safely in the field in Afghanistan.
The civilians have their own withdrawal schedule, with plans to pull back gradually from distant outposts where they provide aid and guidance on agriculture, governance, rule of law and other civil matters.
By the end of 2014, when all U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan, the civilians are to be moved into four regional consulates that have yet to be opened. About 400 of more than 1,130 civilians are currently based in field locations outside Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced that seven districts and cities are to be turned over to complete Afghan security control in the coming months, and any U.S. troop departures from those areas will also mean the withdrawal of civilians. But most of the initial “transition” areas already have little or no U.S. or Taliban presence.
Obama’s strategy has married U.S. military and civilian efforts under the general heading of “stabilization.” As the military has cleared areas of the Taliban, civilian experts have moved in to help develop and improve Afghan government services.
Depending on the rate of military withdrawal, civilian experts may find it more difficult to provide hands-on aid.
Although the number of civilian experts is currently scheduled to increase by several hundred and peak in 2014 as troop levels decrease, the amount of money available for U.S. assistance programs is likely to shrink.
The administration has already lowered its initial budget request for fiscal year 2012 from $4.3 billion to just over $3 billion — enough, as one administration official said, to cover slightly more than a week of U.S. military operations at current rates. But Congress is likely to impose substantial further cuts.
As the troop withdrawal begins, the administration is trying to speed up its plans to change commanders in Afghanistan, which could lead to Lt. Gen. John R. Allen taking over for Gen. David H. Petraeus as early as next month.
The hand-over was originally scheduled to take place in September, when Petraeus is supposed to start his new job as director of the CIA. But administration officials are trying to give Petraeus a bit of a breather after years of leading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday.
“I think we would like to have a change of command somewhat sooner, and it is to give General Petraeus a little time,” Gates said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The last 4 1
2 years, it’s been pretty wild for him.”
But Allen’s nomination to become commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as his promotion to four-star general, must be confirmed by the Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled his confirmation hearing for Thursday morning.
Allen most recently served as deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa. If confirmed, he will be the first Marine to lead all U.S. forces in either the Afghan or Iraq wars. Since last month, Allen has been serving as a special assistant to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Correspondent Pamela Constable in Kabul and staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.