President Obama will announce Wednesday how many U.S. troops he's decided to withdraw next month from Afghanistan, the first phase of a plan to turn over to Afghans control of their own security in 2014.
An administration official confirmed the president will make the announcement prior to his visit Thursday to Fort Drum, a military base in upstate New York that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, which has often deployed troops to Afghanistan.
The president will meet Tuesday afternoon with retiring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has confirmed that the U.S. State Department is engaged in "very preliminary" talks with the Taliban. But Mr. Gates downplayed the suggestion that the discussions would lead to a rapid end to the 10-year-old war.
Mr. Obama met last week with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
The discussions come as lawmakers in both parties in Washington are pressuring Mr. Obama to order rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the president has not yet made up his mind how many troops to bring home quickly.
"He's finalizing his decision," Mr. Carney said. "He's reviewing his options."
The issue is coloring the 2012 presidential race, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney calling last week for a withdrawal of U.S. troops "as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals."
That prompted Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, to warn against a rapid withdrawal. Mr. McCain said he supported a modest withdrawal of 5,000 to 10,000 troops.
But the administration is also sending signals that the withdrawal could be robust.
"There has been significant progress in disrupting, or halting, the momentum of the Taliban, and significant progress in stabilizing Afghanistan and the government to allow Afghan national security forces to build up, to train and prepare for taking over the lead," Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Carney has said repeatedly that the president is looking at his decision in terms of the strategy he laid out in December 2009: To "disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat" al Qaeda, break the momentum of the Taliban and create enough stability in Afghanistan to allow its own security forces to control the country.
"We have made significant progress toward achieving those goals," Mr. Carney said. "Obviously, the most sensational and significant data point in that progress, of that progress, is the elimination of Osama bin Laden. But there has been enormous progress in disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region beyond and below Osama bin Laden."
Mr. Obama approved a "surge" of about 30,000 troops last year, bringing the total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. Military commanders want to keep a high level of troops for as long as possible in Afghanistan, the training ground from which al Qaeda launched the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. There is concern about a rapid withdrawal surrendering the gains that U.S. troops have secured over years of fighting, as well as concern for pulling out too many troops as the summer fighting season begins.
"We are there for specific reasons to achieve specific goals," Mr. Carney said. "We have no desire to stay there any longer than necessary. The president has made that clear."
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