The US surge in Afghanistan is likely to stay in place long beyond President Barack Obama’s initial plan to pull troops out in large numbers this year.
Some US officials anticipate the drawdown scheduled for this year will be relatively modest – even though Mr Obama had initially intended to “push the curve to the left” in the 30,000-strong surge, accelerating both its deployment and withdrawal.
One factor is the presence of General David Petraeus, the US and Nato commander in the field and a uniquely authoritative figure because of his commanding role in Iraq, who has made clear his opposition to a precipitous withdrawal. He made no mention of the July date in a recent letter to troops on the challenges ahead.
The Pentagon this week reacted to reports that Gen Petraeus was slated to depart by insisting no decision had been made and that he would not be leaving “any time soon”.
Typically, top Nato and US commanders in Afghanistan stay in post no longer than 18 months, which would take Gen Petraeus, who started in July 2010, to the end of this year.
Speaking to the Financial Times recently, he signalled that he would set out to the White House the risks of withdrawals that were too big or too fast. He said he would provide Mr Obama with drawdown options “with assessments of risk for each course of action, and then a recommendation on how to initiate the responsible drawdown of the surge forces”.
The US has already adopted a common Nato-wide goal of transferring the lead in the battle against the Taliban to local forces by 2014 and retaining a military presence in the country beyond that date.
“I don’t know if I would describe it as slow but I certainly would describe it as deliberate,” said a US military official, referring to the pace of the change between 2011 and 2014.