Petraeus: first US cuts will include combat forces

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 4:15 PM

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday the initial wave of troop withdrawals in July will probably include combat as well as non-combat forces, part of a President Barack Obama's long-term strategy that garnered crucial support from lawmakers.

Testifying for a second day on Capitol Hill, Army Gen. David Petraeus described combat gains since last year's U.S. troop buildup, and several members of the House Armed Services Committee who recently traveled to Afghanistan echoed his assessment.

"During a visit last week with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed, `The closer you get to this fight, the better it looks,'" said Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. "Having just returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I couldn't agree more."

Petraeus' testimony to various House and Senate committees - and private meetings with congressional leaders - are designed to ensure political support for the long, costly war despite strong opposition among the American people. The Pentagon also is asking Congress to provide $553 billion for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, plus $118 billion in costs for Iraq and Afghanistan.

A clear test of that support comes on Thursday when the House votes on a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan no later than Dec. 31. The measure is expected to fail, but lawmakers and the administration will be closely watching the vote totals.

Tempering the talk of success against the Taliban were serious concerns about President Hamid Karzai's rule and widespread corruption.

"There are challenges given corruption and the basic lack of competence in the governance of Afghanistan. I think that gives us pause," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

In describing the first phase of a troop drawdown, Petraeus mentioned no numbers, nor did he identify which combat units might be pulled out to begin what Obama has called a responsible winding down of the war by 2014. The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and its international partners have about 40,000.

"I am still formulating the options that I will provide to the president and the recommendation that I make," Petraeus said. "But I do believe there will be some combat forces included in those options and in that recommendation."

It is widely expected that a large share - if not the majority - of those initial American withdrawals will be support forces such as logistics specialists who helped in last year's U.S. troop buildup. Petraeus has said he foresees a tough combat season ahead this spring and summer.

The general said that in formulating his recommendation to Obama he will take into account several factors, including the capabilities of Afghan security forces, progress in improving the Afghan government's ability to deliver basic services, and the extent to which ordinary Afghans see their government as legitimate.

Petraeus did not say how many troops are likely to be pulled out in July, nor has Obama prescribed a specific number.

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