- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has until mid-October to submit a plan for the initial withdrawal of American troops, decisions that may hinge in part on whether the latest surge in attacks continues through the holy month of Ramadan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says commanders are hearing that Taliban leaders may leave their fighters in the country to try to regain lost ground during the Islamic holy period which begins Monday.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan, 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.

Mullen’s comments for the first time laid out a deadline for Allen to structure the planned withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year, as announced by President Barack Obama.

“The next month will be very telling,” said 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.

A Western official said that while Taliban leaders have pushed for an increase in violence through Ramadan, 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 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.

Mullen, who arrived Friday in Afghanistan, met Saturday with commanders in southern Afghanistan. He was traveling in the east Sunday.

He said that so far commanders are saying they are seeing some signs of improved security, but his comments came amid a series of spectacular deadly attacks across the south, including a bombing Sunday outside the main gate of the police headquarters in the southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah. The suicide bomber killed at least 11 people in a city where Afghans had only recently taken control of security.

That attack comes on the heels of bombings in the southern province of Uruzgan that killed at least 19 people, and the assassination of Kandahar’s mayor.

The mayor was the third southern Afghan leader to be killed in the last three weeks.

There are nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Under Obama’s troop withdrawal plan, 10,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.

A key to the withdrawal is the ongoing effort to train Afghan forces so they can take control of their own security. Mullen said that while training remains a top priority, and commanders would like to accelerate it, it’s not clear how possible that will be over the coming months.

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