WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will order a "real drawdown" of U.S. forces from Afghanistan starting in July, the White House insisted Monday, a milestone in a long war that is testing the patience of the American people and Congress, particularly after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Roughly 100,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, three times as many as when Obama took office, and U.S. forces are expected to remain there through 2014.
Sometime this month, Obama is likely to announce how many troops will start coming home. The commander in chief is on record as promising a "significant" withdrawal of forces in July after having sent in an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009 to turn around a troubled war that began after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The White House sought to tamp down anticipation of Obama's decision, suggesting there are no major policy decisions in debate and that the more important date is 2014, when NATO forces have pledged to turn over control of security to Afghan forces.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama's war strategy is set and that the coming drawdown is "a step along the way" to Afghanistan taking control of its own country.
An Associated Press-GfK poll in May, after the bin Laden killing, found 59 percent oppose the war and 37 percent favor it. Afghan President Hamid Karzai bluntly says he wants a smaller U.S. presence. And Congress is weary of the toll and cost of a war now nearly a decade old.
Obama is awaiting recommendations from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who is expected to offer a range of options on how to begin the withdrawal and at what pace.
"I intend to follow through on that commitment that I made to the American people," Obama said Monday in an interview with Hearst Television.
He said U.S. forces have killed bin Laden, knocked back al-Qaida and stabilized much of Afghanistan so that the Taliban cannot wrest back control, and "it's now time for us to recognize that we've accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it's time for the Afghans to take more responsibility."
Obama met with war advisers on Monday for a regular update about the effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The scope of the July withdrawal was not discussed, Carney said.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said over the weekend that only a "modest" drawdown would be appropriate. Gates' suggestion now gives Obama room for what military officials have long expected would be a compromise decision — a withdrawal large enough to make a statement and small enough not to make much difference on the front lines.
For example, an announcement that two brigade combat teams, or roughly 7,000 forces, are coming home this summer would send a strong signal, especially if accompanied by a schedule for further withdrawals over the next few months. Numbers in that range would easily allow Obama to claim that the initial withdrawal is significant.