- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that no decision had been made on the planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan that are scheduled to begin in July.

The comments come amid a report that the president’s advisers are debating the withdrawal of as many as 50,000 troops based on ballooning costs as well as questions about the need for large-scale counterinsurgency operations after the death of Osama bin Laden.

“We have absolutely not made the specific decisions [on withdrawals], because we’re still gathering our best assessment,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at the State Department after a meeting of senior Obama administration security officials on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House.

U.S. and allied nations now have 150,000 troops, including a surge of 30,000 that were added since 2009 as part of a campaign to stabilize the Southwest Asian state and roll back gains by the Taliban.

The New York Times, quoting senior administration officials, reported on Monday that the president is re-evaluating the troop withdrawals in July. The newspaper stated that some officials, such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden, favor withdrawing between 30,000 and 50,000 troops. Others, such as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, favor reducing forces by 3,000 to 5,000 troops. The numbers favored by the vice president call for drawing down troop numbers to pre-surge levels.

Many in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, have questioned the need for keeping current troop levels in Afghanistan after the death of the al Qaeda leader in a commando operation in Pakistan last month.

A House bill calling for the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan was rejected by a vote of 215 to 204, a closer vote than previous measures.

Both Mr. Gates and senior U.S. and allied generals in the Afghan conflict have warned against withdrawing troops too quickly.

“We have a ways to go [in Afghanistan] … I think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months,” Mr. Gates said during a meeting with troops stationed in Afghanistan on Monday, in what is the outgoing secretary’s last visit to Afghanistan.

International Security Assistance Force leaders have cautioned that bin Laden’s death is not expected to affect the conflict in Afghanistan. Some have warned the conflict may escalate after the troop-withdrawal deadline, as Taliban insurgents seek to assert dominance in Afghanistan. Many have characterized the progress made in Afghanistan as “fragile and reversible.”

The nominee to replace Mr. Gates at the Pentagon, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, reportedly supports a greater reliance on the use of remotely piloted drones, based the drones’ effectiveness in finding and targeting insurgents and their lower operational cost.

The July deadline was set by Mr. Obama when he announced the beginning of the troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. According to the current agreement between NATO and the Afghan government, all foreign troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014.

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