WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General David Petraeus said on Wednesday he has completed a draft plan to start thinning NATO forces in parts of Afghanistan next year, but cautioned that the transition process would be slow.
Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the Reuters Washington Summit that he briefed NATO allies on what he called a “very tentative, pre-decision, provisional analysis” on starting a transition to Afghan security control.
The plan would be refined in the coming months, particularly ahead of a NATO summit in Lisbon in November.
“All we have done so far is a preliminary analysis that looks at what -- at some point out in 2011 -- what may be districts that could be candidates for beginning the process of transition,” Petraeus said in an hour-long telephone interview from Kabul, without identifying the districts.
The draft plan looked at possibilities during a “certain period out in the future -- within a six month period, then six to 12 months, 12 to 18, and so forth,” he said.
It also underscored the importance of keeping vital military headquarters in place for the time being.
Petraeus, credited with helping turn around the Iraq war when he was commander there, is under enormous pressure to do the same in Afghanistan, where an unpopular, nine-year-old war is testing public patience in the United States and its NATO allies.
This year has been the deadliest for foreign troops since the war began.
President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 forces for Afghanistan last December but also announced that they would start coming home in July 2011. That was meant to send a message of urgency to Kabul about the need to ramp up Afghan security forces for an eventual handover.
U.S. and NATO officials are under pressure to show progress in the war, particularly ahead of a White House review in December, but also wary of playing into Taliban insurgent propaganda about a pending exit of U.S. forces.
Petraeus, echoing comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others, stressed that U.S. forces are not going to be withdrawing en masse next July, although the scale and scope of the U.S. drawdown has yet to be determined.
Petraeus stressed that the transition was gradual in nature, calling it a “process” and “not an event” in which the goal was to “thin out, not hand off” security responsibility.
“In other words, we do a little bit less, the Afghans do a little bit more,” Petraeus said.
On that point, Petraeus emphasized that military headquarters would remain in Afghanistan for some time.
“Even as you’re able to thin out combat forces ... you still want to leave the battalion headquarters, in some cases the brigade headquarters,” Petraeus said.
He described headquarters as crucial communications and intelligence links and the places from which quick reaction teams deploy, medevac assets are staged and teams mentoring Afghan forces are located.
“Above all (they’re) your link to enablers, as we call them, for our Afghan partners and our troopers -- enablers being elements like close air support, indirect fire attack helicopters, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and a host of other assets,” he said.
Petraeus said he briefed NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and NATO allies via videoconference last week. He did not say when the next briefing on his assessment would take place.
“I think (allies) asked a number of very good questions and we will continue to add to the elements of the analysis,” Petraeus said.
“There will be more of the elements of the briefing, undoubtedly, that we provide to the leaders at the Lisbon summit, along with obviously a status of the progress in the operational campaign plan at that time.”