The US could cut its forces in Afghanistan by mid-next year if Taliban militants accept an amnesty to be drawn up by President Hamid Karzai and neighboring Pakistan, the senior US commander here said.
Any reduction in the 18,000-strong mainly American combat force in Afghanistan would bring relief to the US military, already stretched thin by the much larger deployment in Iraq. Still, the force is unlikely to shrink before parliamentary elections slated for April.
"I think by next summer we'll have a much better sense if the security threat is diminished as a result of, say, a significant reconciliation with large numbers of Taliban," Lieutenant General David Barno told reporters on Sunday. "That will change the security dynamics tremendously, and of course our forces are sized against the security threat."
Afghan officials have repeatedly urged supporters of the former ruling regime to give up the fight or return from exile and lend a hand in rebuilding a country shattered by a quarter-century of war and a debilitating drought.
But only since Karzai's landslide victory in the landmark Oct. 9 presidential election have plans emerged for a full-blown reconciliation program, which could anger ethnic minorities who suffered under the Taliban.
Barno said Karzai, who was to be sworn in as Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader this week, is to produce a list of Taliban leaders to be excluded from the amnesty and pass it to Islamabad.
The government of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf would then review it, and "I think there'll be a ... list that says here who we all believe we're going to go after," he said.
The final number could be whittled down to less than 100, Barno said.