By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama was set to unveil on Wednesday his plan to start bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, a first step toward ending a decade-long war that is increasingly unpopular in the United States.
Obama is expected to announce in a televised address at 8 p.m. EDT a plan that may include the withdrawal by year's end of up to a third of the 30,000 'surge' troops he sent to Afghanistan in 2010, possibly followed by the removal of the rest of those extra forces by the end of 2012.
The announcement caps weeks of speculation about the future direction of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, nearly 10 years after the September 11 attacks on the United States that triggered the war in which U.S. and other Western forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the insurgent Taliban.
Obama received recommendations last week from General David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, with several options for drawing down some of the 100,000 U.S. soldiers there starting in July.
The president faces a host of contradictory pressures as he seeks to rein in government spending on the war and halt American casualties without endangering the gains his military commanders say they have made across southern Afghanistan.
"There's almost no decision Obama can make that's a good one. We are in an economic crisis and this an expensive war," said Robert Lamb, a conflict expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "On the other hand, we can't leave an Afghanistan that is unstable -- it's not in our interest to be seen as cutting and running."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military leaders have warned against a precipitous departure. Removing too many troops before the United States can prove it has turned a corner, Gates said, would be "premature."
But some in Congress, impatient with a war that now costs over $110 billion a year, are demanding a larger initial drawdown.
SHIFT SINCE BIN LADEN'S DEATH
The debate in Washington has shifted palpably since the U.S. special forces raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month.
His death has given critics from both parties ammunition to argue that the Obama administration must narrow more sharply U.S. goals in Afghanistan, which remains desperately poor and notoriously corrupt.
While the United States has embraced efforts to find a political settlement with the Taliban, officials acknowledge a peace deal may be far in the future even if one could be had.
Obama is mindful of the American public's lack of support for the war as he looks to his 2012 re-election campaign.
A Pew Research poll released on Tuesday found a record 56 percent of Americans favor bringing U.S. forces in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible.
Still, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is worrying.
The Taliban has been pushed out of some areas of their southern heartland, but the insurgency has intensified along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan and U.S. commanders are expected to shift their focus to that area.
July will see the official start of NATO's handover to local security forces in keeping with a plan to put Afghan soldiers in charge across the country by the end of 2014.
Serious doubts remain about whether Afghan forces, plagued by desertion and illiteracy, will be up to the task.
Vali Nasr, who until April was a senior State Department advisor on the region, said a decision to shrink the U.S. military footprint without fully taking into account the many challenges that remain in Afghanistan would be reckless.
"Without a real turning point in the war, without a peace treaty or a clear defeat of the Taliban, we are going to pull out these troops unilaterally," he said. "It's going to be a very consequential decision in what we're trying to achieve over there."
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)