The Obama administration has developed a plan to begin transferring security duties in select areas of Afghanistan to that country’s forces over the next 18 to 24 months, with an eye toward ending the American combat mission there by 2014, officials said Sunday.
The phased four-year plan to wind down American and allied fighting in Afghanistan will be presented at a NATO summit meeting in Lisbon later this week, the officials said. It will reflect the most concrete vision for transition in Afghanistan assembled by civilian and military officials since President Obama took office last year.
In many respects, the concept follows the precedent set in Iraq, where a similar troop surge and strategy shift under President George W. Bush in 2007 enabled American-led coalition forces to eventually hand over security duties to the Iraqis region by region. By last summer, Mr. Obama was able to pull out two-thirds of United States forces from Iraq and declare America’s combat mission there over.
“Iraq is a pretty decent blueprint for how to transition in Afghanistan,” one American official said Sunday, insisting like others on anonymity to discuss the strategy before its presentation. “But the key will be constructing an Afghan force that is truly capable of taking the lead.”
The new transition planning comes as prospects for last year’s troop increase in Afghanistan and reformulated strategy there remain uncertain. American forces in Afghanistan have tripled under Mr. Obama, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander, has expressed confidence that they are making progress. But the last of the reinforcements arrived only recently, and officials in Washington have said it is too early to say whether the strategy will work.
Any such transition risks declaring Afghan units combat-ready before they really are, and officials emphasized Sunday that any transition would be based on local conditions, not a dictate from Washington, and would be a process, not an event. “This will be ground-up,” one official said.
The American government is already assessing which areas could be safely handed over to Afghan security forces and will be ready to identify them late this year or early next year, officials said. Every few months, more areas will begin the transition, with the last at the end of 2012. Those will almost certainly include the toughest areas, like Khost in the east and Kandahar in the south.
Even after Afghan forces have assumed the lead in a province, some American or NATO forces may remain or be positioned “over the horizon” elsewhere in Afghanistan ready to respond quickly if necessary. By the end of 2014, American and NATO combat forces could be withdrawn if conditions warrant, although tens of thousands very likely will remain for training, mentoring and other assistance, just as 50,000 American troops are still in Iraq.
The plan came amid escalating pressure from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to reduce the visibility of American troops, to halt night raids unless carried out by Afghan soldiers or police officers and to begin withdrawing foreign forces by next year. “The time has come to reduce military operations,” Mr. Karzai told The Washington Post in an interview that stirred renewed concern among American officials on Sunday. “The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan.”
While Mr. Obama last year set July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal, he left undetermined the pace and schedule for pulling out the 100,000 American troops now in Afghanistan. The vow to begin bringing troops home helped mute anger among his liberal base but prompted some in the region to assume that America was rushing for the exits.
To emphasize America’s long-term commitment to the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have stressed in recent days that 2014 will be the critical date for Afghanistan to take full control of security, a date first set by Mr. Karzai.
The plan’s success depends in part on building an Afghan Army and police force genuinely able to defend their own country. The combined forces today have about 264,000 men, with a goal of 350,000 by 2013. Yet attrition has been a problem for years, with many soldiers and police officers simply walking away, some winding up with the insurgents.
The transition plan may draw skepticism among Republicans, who have complained about Mr. Obama’s previously announced intention to begin withdrawing some forces from the troop increase starting next July.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent in 2008, said Sunday that the president appeared to be basing his war planning on the politics of his liberal base. “You don’t fight and conduct wars that way,” Mr. McCain said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “You win, and then you leave. And that’s what we’ve done in Iraq.”
Appearing on the same program, the president’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, said any pullout would be driven by strategy. “We’ve always said it would be based on conditions on the ground, and that is still the case,” he said. “But it’s important to let the Afghans know that they have to pick up the pace in terms of training up the military, training up their police, being ready to accept responsibility.”
While Mr. Karzai has criticized the American military, his latest remarks appeared to go further. But a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, Waheed Omer, said “the president has just talked in line with the transition strategy of NATO.”
On the ground, the tempo of Special Operations raids has greatly increased, resulting in what the United States military says is a sixfold increase in captures and killings of Taliban commanders, but also in an increase in night raids that sometimes lead to civilian casualties.
“It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly,” Mr. Karzai said, suggesting they should by next year begin drawing down and confining themselves to their bases.
Mr. Omer said the suggestion that American troops be confined to bases referred to a long-term strategic partnership after 2014. But he said “the president does hold the view that there needs to be a reduction in visibility and intrusiveness.” He also said the “visibility and presence” of Afghan forces must increase.
A senior NATO official said that discussions about night raids had been held with Mr. Karzai, and that tactics had been adapted to recognize his sensitivity, including using Afghan partners.
The official said General Petraeus “is spending a considerable amount of time working with President Karzai and his national security team to build upon the progress we’ve made to date, ensuring the eventual transition to Afghan lead by the end of 2014.”