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US considers Afghanistan troop cut

KABUL, Afghanistan -- US military commanders have drafted plans to lower the number of American troops in Afghanistan by roughly 20 percent next year if NATO-led troops from Europe continue to widen their role in securing the country, according to senior officers here.

A reduction of as many as 4,000 of the nearly 20,000 American personnel in Afghanistan would be the largest drop in a force that generally has grown since the US-led invasion in late 2001 drove the Taliban from power and routed Al Qaeda fighters.

The US plan is contingent on an improving political and security situation in Afghanistan and on decisions still to be made by NATO about what types of forces it would commit and its willingness for them to engage in combat against insurgents, the officers said.

''It makes sense that as NATO forces go in, and they're more in number, that we could drop some of the US requirement somewhat," Army General John Abizaid, the senior US commander in the region, said in an interview here. He stressed that no decision had been made to shrink the US military presence.

The planning comes amid intensified fighting in Afghanistan this year that has killed more than 50 Americans, the highest death toll in any year since the troops arrived. US officials say the increase is due in large part to aggressive moves by US forces to root out guerrillas.

Although US commanders expect the fighting to subside when harsh winter weather sets in, they anticipate another round of battles starting in the spring. ''I think you have to get used to the cycle of fighting in Afghanistan," Abizaid said.

Even so, he and other commanders expressed confidence that the threat posed by the Taliban movement will dwindle as the Afghan government's authority spreads and Afghan forces become more capable.

NATO already leads a peacekeeping contingent of more than 9,000 troops known as the International Security Assistance Force, whose mandate was renewed for another year yesterday by the UN Security Council. In the past two years, the force has broadened its reach from its original base in Kabul, the capital, and now commands operations in the country's northern and western regions.

The alliance is moving toward assuming command in the southern region by May, which would leave the US military responsible only for the eastern region.

But the expansion remains a sensitive issue in the alliance, particularly among member countries that have been reluctant to put their troops into combat as opposed to the less risky job of peacekeeping in relatively secure areas.

US troops have so far borne the brunt of the fight with Taliban insurgents, whose strongholds are in remote parts of the south and the rugged hills of eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, arriving in Berlin yesterday for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, urged the alliance to shoulder more of the work in Afghanistan and to better develop its counterinsurgency and counternarcotics capabilities. The NATO ministers plan to discuss Afghanistan today.

Handing more responsibility to NATO would appear to lighten the load on the US military much faster than waiting for Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to be ready to conduct counterinsurgency operations on their own.

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