Qaeda woes fuel talk of speeding Afghan pullback

The New York Times reports:

As the Obama administration nears a crucial decision on how rapidly to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan, high-ranking officials say that Al Qaeda’s original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops.

The officials said the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan — most dramatically the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — had left Al Qaeda paralyzed, with its leaders either dead or pinned down in the frontier area near Afghanistan. Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.

Their confidence, these officials said, was buttressed by information found in Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. They said the trove revealed disarray within Al Qaeda’s leadership, with a frustrated Bin Laden indicating that he could no longer direct terrorist attacks by lieutenants who feared for their own lives.

The American success in the counterterrorism campaign would seem to bolster arguments for a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan — an issue the administration is currently examining. The officials emphasized that Mr. Obama had not yet made a determination on that question.

Fighting Al Qaeda, they noted, was the main reason Mr. Obama agreed to deploy 30,000 more troops last year, even as he adopted a broader, more troop-intensive and time-consuming strategy of making key towns in Afghanistan safe from the Taliban and helping the Afghans to build up security forces and a better-functioning government.

The focus on progress against Al Qaeda was also a counter to arguments made by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other military officials in recent days that the initial reduction of troops should be modest, and that American combat pressure should be maintained as long as possible so that the gains from the surge in troops are not sacrificed.

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