By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will consider a plan to withdraw its 30,000-troop surge force from Afghanistan over the next 12 to 18 months, but give military commanders free rein to plot the drawdown's pace.
Six weeks after U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and as budget pressures intensify at home, support is growing in Washington for an aggressive move to curtail the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Despite record violence, U.S. commanders are hailing major advances in wresting territory away from a dogged Taliban insurgency.
The White House is waiting for Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus to deliver his recommendations on how many troops to withdraw starting in July.
Former officials and commanders say President Barack Obama may well announce 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.
If embraced by Obama, such a plan would set the United States on a glide path toward a pared-down Afghanistan force, allowing military commanders to determine exactly 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 would differ markedly from the widespread expectation that Obama's announcement later this month would herald a one-time, smaller withdrawal by year's end.
The plan also could placate those in the U.S. 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.
"There's a precedent for that and it has worked well," said retired Lieutenant General David Barno, a former top commander who now tracks Afghanistan at the Center for a New American Security. "In a sense, it keeps both sides happy."
A former U.S. official said Obama would likely get a trio of options from the military, rated according to risk.
Military commanders, including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have warned that a precipitous drawdown would endanger hard-won gains on the battlefield over the past year.
Behind those gains the Pentagon sees the surge troops Obama sent to help a force that has grown substantially since Obama took office, from about 34,000 in early 2009 to 100,000 today.
The Afghanistan campaign is at a crossroads almost a decade after the September 11 attacks that triggered the war. The Taliban has been driven out of strategic areas of its southern heartland, but insurgents have fanned out across the country and violence has surged along the Pakistan border.
The government of President Hamid Karzai remains weak and dangerously corrupt, and billions of dollars in Western aid effort have only a meager record.
Under such a glide path plan, commanders could leave the bulk of the troop drawdown until they are sure their battlefield gains will stick.
"Any decision that leaves military commanders with the utmost flexibility is preferable," said Jeff Dressler, a military expert at the Institute for the Study of War.
"In Afghanistan, there is much left to be done and we shouldn't deny ourselves the ability to take the fight to the enemy by removing resources prematurely," he said.
WHEN AND HOW TO LEAVE
Mounting calls for an end to the war, which costs more than $110 billion a year, have altered the debate in Washington.
Last month, a House amendment that would have required Obama to begin planning for a stepped-up withdrawal was narrowly defeated; the measure received triple the number of Republican votes a similar proposal got a year ago.
"The people that are going to be arguing most strongly against 30,000 over the first year are those who think it can go more quickly in the White House," Barno said. "I think there is going to be a strong camp saying we have to go faster."
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said domestic considerations would be pivotal as the White House eyes Obama's 2012 re-election bid.
"In an election year, Republicans are going to jump at anything they see as a withdrawal, and at the same time there will be unhappiness in the president's base if he doesn't withdraw anything," the official said.
"So while there will be a trajectory of downsizing, he will likely make it slow enough to be covered."
The White House will also need to be mindful of the message it sends to the Taliban, which the West hopes will enter substantive peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
A slower drawdown "could well result in the so-called reconciliation process stalling further unless other major concessions are made, including the removal of Taliban names from the U.N. sanctions," said Samina Ahmed, a South Asia expert at the International Crisis Group in Islamabad.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)