The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has been ordered to submit a plan by mid-October for the initial withdrawal of American troops, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday. That plan may hinge in part on whether the latest surge in attacks continues through the holy month of Ramadan.
Commanders are hearing that Taliban leaders might leave their fighters in the country to try to regain lost ground during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins today, rather than crossing the border into Pakistan, said Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman.
Mullen, who visited U.S. outposts along Afghanistan's eastern border Sunday, also said U.S. troops are making progress in their renewed campaign against Haqqani network insurgents in havens in Pakistan. And he issued another warning that Islamabad must step up its efforts to root out those militants.
Speaking with reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan, Mullen said Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who has just taken over as top U.S. commander here, needs time to evaluate the combat, training and other requirements before presenting a detailed withdrawal plan.
Mullen's comments for the first time gave a deadline for Allen to structure a withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year, as announced by President Obama.
"The next month will be very telling," Mullen said, noting that often the Taliban leaders will travel back to Pakistan for Ramadan. It's unclear at this point what they will do, or whether there will be any decline in the fighting.
U.S. military leaders have said they plan to shift resources and perhaps some troops to the eastern border in the coming months. Commanders there told him that the strategy is working, Mullen said.
U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan to go after Haqqani militants and other fighters who routinely launch attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan. But relations with Islamabad have frayed, particularly after the U.S. raid in May that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In recent weeks, the Obama administration moved to delay $800 million in aid to Pakistan. The intention is to put further pressure on the Pakistani government, which has been reluctant to push into North Waziristan and go after the Haqqani network.
Mullen, who arrived in Afghanistan on Friday, met with commanders Saturday in southern Afghanistan.
The admiral said that so far, U.S. commanders are saying they are seeing some signs of improved security, but his comments came amid a series of spectacular deadly attacks across the south, including a bombing Sunday outside the main gate of the police headquarters in the southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah. The suicide bomber killed at least 11 people in a city where Afghans had only recently taken control of security.
That attack comes on the heels of bombings in the southern province of Uruzgan that killed at least 19 people, along with the assassination of Kandahar's mayor.