U.S. soldiers are heading into what may be a pivotal Afghan fighting season that determines the scale of an initial U.S. troop withdrawal, now pegged at 5,000 in July, senior U.S. officials say.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that preliminary proposals call for a 5,000-troop drawdown in July and as many as 5,000 more by the end of the year. The proposal was drawn up before the Pakistan raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has not formally been presented to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The proposal would not involve U.S. combat troops but would draw down "at the edges" and be spread across the entire U.S. force in Afghanistan, NBC News reported. No complete units or brigades would be withdrawn.
President Barack Obama has vowed to begin the gradual withdrawal of 100,000 U.S. troops in July as Washington takes steps to end a costly, unpopular war nearly a decade after the Taliban government was toppled.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the weeks up to early- to mid-June would reveal the extent to which Obama's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan had weakened the Afghan insurgency. In a war assessment released last month, the Pentagon said the troop surge over the past 18 months — bringing the total foreign force to around 130,000 — had dealt a blow to the Taliban but total violence had risen and would likely continue to climb.
July is considered the middle of the fighting season, which usually peaks in August, NBC News said. U.S. military officials said it would be "foolhardy" to draw down combat forces during Obama's "surge operation," what is considered to be a "make or break" period for the U.S. strategy, the Taliban and perhaps the entire war, officials told NBC News.
General says don't change strategy
Bin Laden's demise could turn around the Afghanistan war by hastening a political settlement with the Taliban, although it is too early to halt U.S. combat involvement, a top commander said Tuesday.
"One man does not make the war," Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters in a videoteleconference from Afghanistan and reported by NBC News. Just because bin Laden is dead doesn't mean "the war is over" or that the U.S. military will "change strategy," he said.
"I think there is great potential for many of the insurgents to say, hey, I want to reintegrate" into Afghan society by laying down arms and renouncing terrorism, Campbell said.
Videos released by the U.S. government on Saturday depicting a gray-bearded bin Laden wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on TV — Campbell described him as "alone and desperate" — could send a powerful message to dispirited rank-and-file Taliban fighters, he said.
"I think the insurgents are going to see this and say, hey, why am I doing this," he said. Campbell, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, is responsible for military operations throughout eastern Afghanistan, along a 450-mile border with Pakistan.
He said bin Laden's death has had little immediate impact in eastern Afghanistan.
A key test was seen Tuesday, when hundreds of insurgents attacked Afghan police checkpoints in a remote eastern province with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, but failed to overrun the government positions, officials said.
The assault in Nuristan province, a rugged and mountainous area bordering Pakistan, is the second significant Taliban attack on Afghan government forces in less than four days and is part of the insurgents' long-awaited spring offensive.
Nuristan province police chief, Gen. Shams-ul Rahman Zahid, said about 400 Taliban fighters launched their assault at dawn, striking government security outposts around a base housing reserve police units some 11 miles south of the provincial capital of Parun.
The gunbattles tapered off just before nightfall with the police still in control of the four checkpoints, which had been reinforced by more police from Parun, he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the army was aware that "hundreds of insurgents" had attacked police forces in Nuristan, but had no immediate plans to dispatch troops to the area as police were still holding their ground.
He said the Afghan army does not have troops stationed in Nuristan because it doesn't have the personnel available to cover the remote area.
The American commander in charge of the area disputed the number of Taliban attacking but said the U.S. sent an unmanned drone to the area to check on the situation.
Speaking from Bagram Air Base, Maj. Gen. John Campbell told a Pentagon press conference that in the year he has been there, "we have never seen ... 400 insurgents mass."
The Taliban launched the first major strike in its spring campaign over the weekend in the city of Kandahar, the movement's birthplace and the economic hub of southern Afghanistan, hitting government buildings across the city in a full frontal assault. At least two dozen insurgents, two members of the Afghan security forces and one civilian were killed in two days of fighting in the city.
Violence also continued in other parts of Afghanistan. NATO said Tuesday that three of its service members were killed by roadside bombs, one on Tuesday in the east and two on Monday in the south. France confirmed one of the soldiers was French, and the other two were Romanians, their government said. Seven NATO troops have died this month, and 158 have been killed since the start of the year.
In southern Zabul province, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said one of its commando units killed five insurgents, including two Pakistanis. It also said two armed foreign nationals, a Frenchman and a Moroccan, were detained "along with ammunition, weapons, military equipment and propaganda letters."
It provided no further details on the two foreigners.
In eastern Paktika, the provincial governor's office said six insurgents were killed and another eight captured in Afghan police operation.