KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan suggested Wednesday that the White House-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing American troops by next summer was unlikely to amount to a significant force reduction.
Asked about the widespread belief among the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan that similar numbers of American forces are likely to remain well past the July 2011 drawdown date, Gen. David Petraeus appeared to agree, if obliquely.
“I’m not going to hazard a prediction,” Petraeus told Stars and Stripes in an interview. “But our troops are generally pretty good and pretty candid evaluators of reality.”
The deadline has proved a delicate issue for Petraeus since taking over command three months ago from his deposed predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Thousands of reinforcements ordered into the country earlier this year by President Barack Obama as part of a troop surge are only now settling in, leaving the new commander little time to show progress ahead of a wide-ranging White House policy review set for December.
With the war growing increasingly unpopular in the United States, administration officials have insisted the July deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops is non-negotiable.
For their part, Pentagon officials have stressed that the pace of the drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and the readiness of Afghan forces to assume responsibility for the country’s security.
Petraeus suggested that by July it might be possible to begin "thinning out" U.S. forces from relatively secure areas and sending them to other problem areas or, perhaps, home.
That echoed statements earlier this week by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said troops serving in less violent areas might be moved to more restive sections of the country or reassigned to train Afghan forces.
Petraeus offered a relatively upbeat, if typically cautious, view of the war, making frequent comparisons to the situation he inherited when he took command in Iraq in 2007. As during the troop "surge" in Iraq, he said, violence has increased over the past two years in Afghanistan in large part because of a dramatic increase in U.S. and NATO forces.
He said "difficult and hard-fought" efforts were beginning to pay some dividends. He said the operation in the southern town of Marjah — launched earlier this year as a showpiece of U.S. efforts but quickly bogged down amid tougher-than-expected resistance and a lackluster showing by the Afghan government — has begun to turn in the right direction.
"We just opened a high school for the first time in six years," he said. "I walked through the market, which is no longer a market of illegal narcotics controlled by the Taliban with an explosives factory ... it’s now a legitimate market of shops that are very vibrant."
Petraeus said the U.S. is overhauling its contracting practices, believing that lucrative reconstruction and security contracts have often gone to corrupt local power brokers, undermining support for the Afghan government.
"We have an old adage that money is ammunition," he said. "Now we’ve added that money is ammunition you don’t want to put in the wrong hands."
While Petraeus acknowledged that corruption within the Afghan government remains a key concern, he offered an assessment of anti-graft efforts considerably more optimistic than that of most independent observers.
"President Karzai in recent weeks has replaced the governor of Kapisa, replaced the police chief of Parwan, put in jail the police chief of another province," he said.
"The border commander of Western Afghanistan is now in jail. Hundreds of judicial officials have been removed, some judges have been put in jail and so forth," Petraeus said.
"The bottom line is that President Karzai has put more emphasis on this ... and there have been very substantial cases of the government going after corruption."
Petraeus also acknowledged that some high-profile investigations of senior government officials remain stalled and that more must be done.
Petraeus said he believed morale among U.S. troops in the field remains high despite repeated deployments.
"We started predicting as far back as Bosnia that the deployment pace was really high and we had less than a single division deployed," he said. "The resilience our troopers have shown has been remarkable."
He said he believes those troops remain confident that the war in Afghanistan can be brought to a successful conclusion.
"I do. I think they have their eyes wide open about that," he said. "I think they realize the challenges. I think they’re aware of the various clocks that are ticking out there."
This story has been corrected from the original version.