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WASHINGTON — Although Defense Department officials insisted Thursday that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has not shifted, foreign policy and security experts say, formal declaration or not, an accelerating trajectory toward full U.S. withdrawal in 2014 is causing aspects of the U.S. approach to change.

Pentagon officials would not confirm a Wall Street Journal report quoting unnamed administration officials saying U.S. strategy may soon undergo a major shift, downplaying the conventional U.S. combat role while focusing on targeted counterterrorist actions and training Afghan troops. Faster troop withdrawals could result, the Journal said.

But no such plan is in place, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Thursday.

“The bottom line is that the policy of this administration has not changed and the role of the U.S. military has not shifted,” Little said.

Current U.S. policy includes pursuit of political reconciliation with the Taliban and integration of insurgent fighters into Afghan society while U.S. troops maintain the lead in combat. As for troop levels, some surge forces will be drawn down late this year, while more will flow out next summer until about 68,000 remain in October 2012. Today there are roughly 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Analysts, however, said plans for the U.S. to lead the fighting appear to be changing as the U.S. begins to position itself for final withdrawal in 2014.

Administration and defense officials increasingly recognize that American military dominance in Afghanistan has allowed local forces to shrink into the background, said retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The Washington think tank has close ties both the Obama administration and the Pentagon.

Afghans have to be pushed into the lead to ensure ultimate success, he said.

“It’s the difference between American infantry battalions in the lead today prosecuting COIN (counterinsurgency) with the Afghans alongside, to turning the focus to Afghan infantry battalions taking the lead prosecuting COIN, aided by American advisors and enablers, like air power, resupply and medevac,” Barno said.

Simply moving U.S. troops out as quickly as possible isn’t the point, he said. But if the U.S. is successful in its training mission, allowing Afghans to take the lead in combat, it could well mean continued withdrawal of troops after next fall, rather than a plateau through 2014, he said.

But an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation said the administration appears to be preparing a major shift in Afghan policy for domestic political reasons.

It’s happening even as many aspects of U.S. policy, particularly Afghan political reconciliation, are failing, said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

“What it looks like is the administration wants to be able to accelerate troop withdrawals before next year’s election, and to tout that it’s been able to wind down two wars as well as kill Osama bin Laden,” she said.

Insurgents are now reeling on the battlefield, but winding down the U.S. combat mission too quickly could allow them to surge back and fill the vacuum left by the United States, Curtis said.

National security analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, evoked Vietnam-era withdrawal discussions to describe what he says appears to be a growing rush to leave, regardless of the failure of training and political initiatives.

“This is not a strategy,” Cordesman said. “This is a variation on ‘declare victory and leave.’”

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_

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