The Obama administration is considering an early shift in the U.S. military role in Afghanistan from primarily combat to mainly advisory and training duties, even as it struggles to create the beginnings of a political settlement of the war, a senior U.S. official said late Wednesday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decisions had been made on speeding up a change in the military's mission, said that details of the possible new U.S. approach had not been settled and that other options may be under consideration.
If the faster transition from combat to primarily advising Afghan forces is adopted it would mean a reduction in American combat duties sooner than the administration had planned. But it would not mean an early end to the war, which began in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and became stalemated in the years before President Barack Obama took office.
The war has grown increasingly unpopular at home, and Obama is gearing up for a re-election campaign in which he is expected to emphasis his ending of the Iraq war this year and his efforts to wind down combat in Afghanistan by 2014.
In December 2009 Obama announced he was sending an additional 33,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a bid to change the course of the war. The U.S. and its NATO partners agreed in Lisbon one year ago that coalition forces would complete their combat mission by Dec. 31, 2014, with the understanding that advising and training Afghan forces would gradually become a more dominant part of the mission, particularly after the U.S. completes the withdrawal of 33,000 "surge" troops by September 2012.
The U.S. now has about 98,000 troops in Afghanistan and is scheduled to pull out 10,000 by the end of the year. That is part of a broader strategy designed to give the Afghans a bigger role in providing for their own security, with a goal of having the Afghans entirely in the lead _ not just in security but also in other areas of governance _ by the end of 2014.
The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report that a mission change was under White House consideration, said agreement on a shift to a U.S. military advisory role could come as early as next May, when Obama and other leaders of the 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization are scheduled to meet in Chicago.
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