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Obama hears from Petraeus on Afghan troop options

General David Petraeus speaks after being introduced by President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington
General David Petraeus speaks after being introduced by President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington

By Laura MacInnis and Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has laid out several options for President Barack Obama to reduce the number of troops there, the White House said on Thursday, signaling a plan would be announced soon.

General David Petraeus presented recommendations to Obama and the president's national security advisers in a meeting on Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

"They discussed a range of options. As I think the general has said in the past publicly, this was a question of options plural and not option. That conversation will continue," Carney told a White House news briefing.

The Obama administration is seeking ways to curtail its military involvement in Afghanistan as U.S. budget pressures grow and public support dwindles for the nearly 10-year-old war.

Carney restated on Thursday that an initial drawdown would begin in July and said Obama would announce "relatively soon" how quickly and how many troops would be withdrawn.

The White House had been awaiting recommendations from Petraeus before fixing that plan. Petraeus has been nominated to become the new chief of the CIA.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has grown sharply since Obama took office, to 100,000 today from about 34,000 in early 2009.

Following last month's killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, support has been growing in Washington for an aggressive move to curtail the U.S. role in Afghanistan, where more than 1,600 U.S. troops have died, according to official figures.

$110 BILLION A YEAR

Almost a decade after the September 11 attacks that triggered the war, the Taliban insurgency has come under intense allied pressure in strategic areas of southern Afghanistan. But insurgents have fanned across the country and violence has increased sharply along the Pakistan border.

The war costs more than $110 billion a year, and billions of dollars in Western aid to the government of President Hamid Karzai have had only mixed results.

Some former U.S. officials and commanders say Obama's announcement may, possibly combined with a smaller initial withdrawal, include a longer-term plan to pull out the 30,000 extra troops he sent to Afghanistan following a review of U.S. war strategy in late 2009.

Such a plan would set the United States on a path toward a pared-down Afghanistan force, allowing military commanders to determine when they send home troops within that framework, just as Obama did when he announced a timeline for pulling out U.S. forces from Iraq.

It could also placate those in Congress, including Democrats skeptical of the war and a growing number of Republicans, who question what the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan after a decade of fighting.

Military officials including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates have warned that a precipitous drawdown would endanger hard-won gains on the battlefield over the past year.

Gates said on Thursday that in advance of the drawdown, some 800 troops from two units of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team who were expected to go to Afghanistan next month were reassigned to a mission in Kuwait.

"As General Petraeus was looking across Afghanistan and beginning to identify different options, it was pretty clear that these ... two units were units that would probably be on that list (to draw down)," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

"We took the decision here ... to divert them so that we didn't end up putting them someplace and then pulling them right back out again," Gates said.

Obama consulted extensively with generals as well as his advisers in late 2009 when crafting the surge strategy, in a well-publicized process that revealed stark differences among the Pentagon, State Department and even within the White House itself on Afghanistan.

His deliberations this time have been much more low-key.

"There is no process that is similar to the one that the president undertook in the fall to December of 2009 to do a deep-dive and review of our strategy in Afghanistan," Carney said, describing the drawdown plan as part of that strategy.

"This discussion, these meetings and the result which will come with his announcement are part of that implementation process," he said, declining to give a precise time frame for the announcement.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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