WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama will order a "real drawdown" of U.S. forces from Afghanistan starting in July, the White House insisted Monday, a milestone in a long war that is testing the patience of the American people and Congress particularly after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Roughly 100,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, three times as many as when Obama took office, and U.S. forces are expected to remain there through 2014.
Sometime this month, Obama is likely to announce how many troops will start coming home. The commander in chief is on record as promising a "significant" withdrawal of forces in July after having sent in an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009 to turn around a troubled war that began after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said over the weekend that only a "modest" drawdown would be appropriate.
The White House sought to tamp down anticipation of Obama's decision, suggesting there are no major policy decisions in debate and that the more important date is 2014, when NATO forces have pledged to turn over control of security to Afghan forces.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's war strategy is set and that the coming drawdown is "a step along the way" to Afghanistan taking control of its own country.
Yet for a president heading into a re-election year, the pressure over Afghanistan is only mounting, particularly given the U.S. success in finding and killing bin Laden. As Gates traveled through Afghanistan the past week, the most frequent question he heard from soldiers was what does bin Laden's death mean for the war. "We shouldn't let up on the gas too much -- at least for the next few months," the secretary said.
A majority of Americans oppose the war, Afghan President Hamid Karzai bluntly wants a smaller U.S. presence and Congress is weary of the toll and cost of a war now nearly a decade old.
Obama's decision could be at least a couple of weeks away. He is awaiting recommendations from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who is expected to offer a range of options on how to begin the withdrawal and at what pace.
"I intend to follow through on that commitment that I made to the American people," Obama said Monday in an interview with Hearst Television.
He said U.S. forces have killed bin Laden, knocked back al-Qaida and stabilized much of Afghanistan so that the Taliban cannot wrest back control, and "it's now time for us to recognize that we've accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it's time for the Afghans to take more responsibility."
The president is likely to address the nation once he makes his decision, although no format or timing has been set.
Obama met with war advisers on Monday for a regular update about the effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The scope of the July withdrawal was not discussed, Carney said.
What's clear is that Obama is intent on avoiding what would widely be considered a token withdrawal. "It will be a real drawdown," Carney said, based on current conditions.
Gates' concern is that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the tenuous security gains in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida training ground for the Sept. 11 attacks. Gates is also worried that a bold U.S. drawdown could influence the same action by allies at a time when Afghanistan remains unstable and its forces not fully ready.
Gates' preference for a "modest" pullout now gives Obama room for what military officials have long expected would be a compromise decision -- a withdrawal large enough to make a statement and small enough not to make much difference on the front lines.
For example, an announcement that two brigade combat teams, or roughly 7,000 forces, are coming home this summer would send a strong signal, especially if accompanied by a schedule for further withdrawals over the next few months. Numbers in that range would easily allow Obama to claim that the initial withdrawal is significant, especially if as expected some of the forces will be pulled from areas that now have been largely reclaimed from Taliban control.
Yet back home, war fatigue runs deep in Congress.
Lawmakers point to the killing of bin Laden, the unreliability of ally Pakistan and the difficulty of pursuing a costly military operation in tough budget times in pressing Obama for significant troop cuts this summer. Lawmakers argue that the United States can't afford nation building at a cost of $10 billion a month.
The clearest reflection of the congressional pressure came in the House late last month when Republicans and Democrats sent the strongest message yet to Obama to end the war in Afghanistan. A measure requiring an accelerated timetable for pulling out the 100,000 troops and an exit strategy that involved turning over authority to the Afghans fell just short of passage on a vote of 215-204. All but eight Democrats backed the measure, including some of the more hawkish members of Obama's party
As for the public, an Associated Press-GfK poll in May, after the bin Laden killing, found 59 percent oppose the war and 37 percent favor it.
Karzai has grown more vocal in criticizing the U.S.-led coalition, saying that night raids, civilian casualties and irresponsible arrests have bolstered the insurgency. A series of recent coalition airstrikes that have led to the death of numerous civilians have eroded relations between Karzai and the coalition.
Many Afghans were alarmed when Obama first announced his desire to draw down U.S. forces in July, if security conditions allowed, because they envisioned a mass exodus of American forces. U.S. and international officials worked hard to erase that idea by emphasizing a later deadline: Karzai's plan is to have Afghan security forces take the lead across the entire nation -- but not until the end of 2014.
Obama's decision may clarify not just the July withdrawal but the broader path to the end of the combat mission.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Donna Cassata, Anne Gearan and Darlene Superville in Washington, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington, Robert Burns at Combat Outpost Andar, Afghanistan and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this story.