| Petraeus acknowledged that progress in Afghanistan has been "fragile and reversible" [EPA]
David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the US congress on Tuesday that he supports beginning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July - but does not know how many soldiers will be pulled out.
Petraeus told the US senate's armed services committee that the Taliban's progress has been "arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas." But he called that a "fragile and reversible" trend.
Afghan security forces are expected to take responsibility this year for security in several provinces.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, will formally announce that handover in a speech next week. NATO officials say the handover will probably include two provinces, Bamiyan and Panjshir, both of which are fairly secure; and three cities, including Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
NATO troops will not withdraw from those provinces, but Afghan troops will have the lead responsibility for providing security, NATO officials say.
The US will also begin to withdraw troops in July, a deadline promised by US president Barack Obama when he unveiled his Afghanistan strategy last year. But Petraeus would not place a number on the withdrawal, which is generally expected to be small.
A 'resilient' Taliban
Petraeus' assessment was far more optimistic than that of Ronald Burgess, the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, who warned of a "resilient" Taliban that "still influences much of the population."
There has been "no apparent degradation in their ability to fight," Burgess told a senate panel last week, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Petraeus did not directly respond to Burgess' comments, though he did acknowledge that the Afghan government has struggled to take over certain responsibilities. Earlier in the hearing, he said that some units in the Afghan security forces are not properly trained or equipped.
"Our Afghan partners are the first to note that the quality of some elements is uneven," Petraeus said.
Asked how many al-Qaeda fighters remained in Afghanistan, Petraeus told lawmakers it was probably "less than one hundred."
More than 140,000 US and NATO troops are deployed in Afghanistan as part of the nearly 10-year-old war launched after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington.