WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama was finalizing his decision on the size of planned troop cuts in Afghanistan as expectations mounted Monday of a possible announcement within days.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama still had not definitively made up his mind on the size of a drawdown he promised would begin in July, when he announced a 30,000 strong troop surge in December 2009.
"He's finalizing his decision. He's reviewing the options and the assessments and will have an announcement to make soon," Carney said.
"What I can say affirmatively, because I know for a fact, having been in a room where this was discussed, that the president has not yet even made a decision to announce," Carney said.
Indications that Obama may be moving close to a decision increased in volume when it emerged the White House had scheduled a visit for the president to Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York on Thursday.
Carney steered reporters away from assuming that the president would make an announcement on the troop drawdown at the base, but his comments did not appear to preclude a decision coming before the visit.
Fort Drum is the headquarters of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, which has sent soldiers on repeated tours of Afghanistan.
In the run-up to Obama's long-awaited troop decision, the political ground appears to be shifting away from the Pentagon's apparent urging for a token drawdown towards a slightly more substantial troop reduction timetable.
Some Pentagon sources have been pushing for a cut of only 5,000 or so troops from a total US deployment of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
But other key players on Capitol Hill, aware of the growing unpopularity of the war and recent advances against Al-Qaeda following the killing of Osama bin Laden, are advocating a much larger drawdown of troops.
The National Journal reported on Monday that war commander General David Petraeus would back a decision to wait on bringing all of the 30,000 surge troops home by the end of 2012.
The website said that Petraeus wanted to bring home one brigade combat team of 5,000 troops by the end of this year, and another by next spring.
Such a move may not satisfy some critics of the war in Congress however, and even prospective presidential candidates in the once hawkish Republican Party have been talking about winding down the war as quickly as practicable.
It could however allow Obama to argue to Americans as he runs for reelection next year that his war plan has made substantial progress and that he is beginning to bring American forces home.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Pentagon wanted Obama to hold off on ending the troop surge until late next year, to allow the maximum impact of US forces during the next two warm weather fighting seasons.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, typically been cautious about pulling troops out of Afghanistan too rapidly, appeared to signal some flexibility on the issue on Sunday.
"I would say that whatever decision the president makes, it's going to be a decision that is based on the gains that we've laid on the ground, success on the ground," Gates told Fox News Sunday.
"Whatever decision he makes we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan," he told CNN, while adding in a nod to domestic pressure on Obama : "The drawdown must be politically credible here at home."