U.S. military upbeat on Afghan effort
Commanders told Panetta that progress against the Taliban was among the things that were going well.
KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. commanders are offering glowing reviews of their 2012 war campaign, upbeat assessments that could be interpreted as leeway for President Obama to order another round of troop withdrawals this summer.
Obama faces tension between calls by Democrats and even some Republicans to wind down the war more quickly and the military's desire to avoid a too-fast pullout that might squander hard-won sacrifices.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has not yet recommended to Obama a specific pace of withdrawals for 2013. But during the Pentagon chief's two-day visit to the war zone last week, commanders suggested that things were going better than is generally believed by an American public weary of war after 11 years.
Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams cited "astounding" progress in the Zaray district of Kandahar province, where the Taliban once held sway. He said Afghan forces were now "dominating" in that district. Abrams is the top coalition commander in southern Afghanistan.
Abrams told reporters that he foresaw a smaller coalition force by next summer, but he was not recommending or predicting any U.S. reductions. He was arguing that Afghan forces were performing so well that they should be able to hold their ground in 2013 with less coalition combat power.
No decision on 2013 U.S. troop withdrawals is likely to be announced until after Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Obama in Washington in early January. The United States now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta announced in Kabul on Thursday that Karzai had agreed to go to Washington the week of Jan. 7 to discuss the pace of coalition troop withdrawals as well as a U.S. military role in his country after December 2014, when the international coalition's combat mission is to end.
Obama withdrew 23,000 U.S. troops this year, following a drawdown of 10,000 in 2011. There have been calls in Congress for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal next year, and from commanders' own assessments of progress, it appears such a speedup could be coming.
Commanders portrayed the Taliban as fraying and failing, though not defeated.
Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the international coalition's deputy chief of staff for operations, said the Taliban had aspired to pull off a series of high-level assassinations in 2012 and regain territory it lost in 2011.
"They have failed at every one" of those objectives, Nicholson told reporters.
Nicholson also said, by way of illustrating how much things have changed in Afghanistan in recent years, that in the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, U.S. Marines were now complaining of boredom because there is so little fighting for them to do.
He was not arguing for further U.S. troop reductions in 2013 but observing that if Helmand is a model for Afghanistan, it may show that coalition forces can step back.