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“Stay the course?” Afghanistan watchers predict accelerated pullout

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Afghans shout anti-U.S. slogans in Ghani Khail, east of Kabul, Feb. 24, 2012. (Rahmat Gul, File/AP)

The Pentagon said it was "staying the course" in Afghanistan despite the killing Thursday of two U.S. soldiers by an Afghan soldier and a civilian. But Washington national security analysts said that the United States is likely looking for ways to reduce the international footprint in Afghanistan while accelerating the pace of the drawdown from the country, currently slated to be completed by the end of 2014.

"If I were a betting man, I would say there is absolutely discussion of accelerating the drawdown," Nick Dowling, a former Clinton-era national security council official and president of IDS International, a Virginia-based consultancy that advises U.S. agencies on Afghanistan, told Yahoo News in an interview this week. "We very clearly want to try to extract ourselves from Afghanistan in a way that is responsible and thoughtful."

But, the official line is to insist that's not the case.

Despite the latest killing of U.S. troops, Pentagon spokesman George Little told journalists at the Pentagon press briefing Thursday: "We have confidence in our ability to work closely with the [Afghan National Security Forces]," the Washington Times reported.

"The United States and all its NATO partners in Afghanistan remain fully committed" to the mission, U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Thursday. As the transition underway from foreign- to Afghan-led security operations progresses, "the role of NATO forces and partner forces [will transition] from a combat role to a support role." NATO forces will, however, continue to be combat-ready and will continue to conduct combat missions as needed, until the mission ends at the end of 2014, he said.

The shootings near Kandahar Thursday brought to six the number of NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops who have been killed at the hands of Afghan security forces and police in the past week. The violence—including the fatal shooting of two senior U.S. officers by an Afghan police officer at the Afghan Interior Ministry Saturday—comes in the wake of the U.S. apologizing for the burning of Qurans at the Bagram Air Force base. ISAF commander Gen. Jon Allen and President Obama have both issued apologies for the incident, which has sparked outrage and mass protests in the country which led to 30 Afghans being killed.

President Obama said Wednesday he thought his and Allen's expressed contrition over the incident was helping to calm the situation. Reports Wednesday said protests had been subsiding.

But defense experts said the continued killing of international troops at the hands of Afghan security forces erodes confidence in the heart of the U.S. withdrawal strategy, which rests on training Afghan forces to take the lead in securing their own country.

"It is now clear that withdrawal timetables will continue to accelerate, cutbacks will continue to grow, and political and popular attention will continue to shift away from Afghanistan," Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote in an analysis this week.

"The most likely result at this point is not an Afghan 'transition,' but rather an Afghan 'muddle through,'" Cordesman continued. "What is clear is that this means that the past strategy is dead, and we desperately need to either decide on a workable 'transition' strategy for the future and then actually fund and implement it, or develop an honest exit strategy that will do minimal damage to the Afghan people and our national interest."

Added Dowling: "Unfortunately we are long past the time when the U.S. was really an effective political broker in Afghanistan. Everyone can smell we are leaving."

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