The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has been ordered to submit a plan by mid-October for the initial withdrawal of American troops, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday.
That plan may hinge in part on whether the latest surge in attacks continues through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Commanders are hearing that Taliban leaders might leave their fighters in the country to try to regain lost ground during the month, which begins Monday, rather than crossing the border to Pakistan, said Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
Adm. Mullen, who visited U.S. outposts along Afghanistan's eastern border Sunday, also said U.S. troops are making progress in their renewed campaign against Haqqani network insurgents in havens in Pakistan. And he issued another warning that Islamabad must step up its efforts to root out those militants.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan, Adm. Mullen said Marine Gen. John Allen, who has just taken over as top U.S. commander here, needs time to evaluate the combat, training and other requirements before presenting a detailed withdrawal plan.
Adm. Mullen's comments for the first time laid out a deadline for Gen. Allen to structure the planned withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year, as announced by President Obama.
"The next month will be very telling," said Adm. Mullen, noting that often the Taliban leaders will travel back to Pakistan for Ramadan. It's unclear at this point what they will do, or if there will be any decline in the fighting.
U.S. military leaders have said they plan to shift resources and perhaps some troops to the eastern border in the coming months, and Adm. Mullen said commanders he met with along the eastern border said the strategy is working.
"The overall goal has been to make it much more difficult for the Haqqani network to penetrate directly in what has previously been called this jet stream between Pakistan, right through Khost into Kabul, and it is more difficult," Adm. Mullen said during a news conference shortly after he returned from the volatile border. "That will clearly continue to be the case."
At the same time, however, a senior NATO military official said coalition forces will likely never eliminate the havens.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said that instead the goal is to intensify U.S. efforts while building the Afghan forces so that they can take over the battle for their own security there.
On Ramadan, one Western official said that while Taliban leaders have pushed for an increase in violence through the holy month, information suggests there will be some spikes but that they don't have the ability to carry off a sustained surge.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said some leaders and fighters had already left Afghanistan to cross the border into Pakistan, but it is too soon to tell how many may stay.