Weakened al Qaeda may speed US withdrawal

Twenty of al Qaeda`s 30 prominent leaders in the region had been killed in the past year.

Washington: Drone strikes and covert operations have weakened Afghanistan`s Al Qaeda network and could justify a White House decision to withdraw troops quicker than planned, The New York Times reported.

Citing high-ranking officials, the newspaper reported that 20 of al Qaeda`s 30 prominent leaders in the region had been killed in the past year.

The report comes as the US holds talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the first official confirmed contact between the US and the Taliban after nearly 10 years of war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed the talks on Saturday, which highlight the increasing focus on finding a political solution in Afghanistan as foreign combat troops prepare to pull out by 2014.

"Talks with the Taliban have started... the talks are going on well," Karzai said at a conference in Kabul.

US President Barack Obama ordered 33,000 extra forces to Afghanistan in December 2009 in an attempt to thwart an emboldened Taliban`s momentum, bringing the total deployed to 100,000. He said he would begin withdrawing forces in July 2011.

The US military however is asking Obama to maintain its troop surge in Afghanistan until the fall of 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Obama is facing mounting pressure to announce a significant drawdown after last month`s killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and amid domestic economic woes and a mounting US death toll.

White House spokesman Jay Carney was non-committal Friday about the pace of troop withdrawals.

"The conversations continue," he said. "The president`s consulting with members of the national security team... he will have a decision soon."

During the May 2 raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden, the US seized intelligence materials at the former al Qaeda leader`s compound. Information found among those materials has boosted US confidence that al Qaeda and its leadership have been weakened, reported The New York Times.

There are around 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan, of which some 90,000 are from the US.

Bureau Report

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