The Obama Administration is floating a steeper drawdown in Afghanistan than they contemplated in previous weeks, due to new “strategic considerations.” While they call the considerations the war’s cost and the killing of Osama bin Laden, the fact that 204 House members just voted for a quicker pullout, and the fact that there’s an election coming up in 2012, are probably the more likely ones.

These new considerations, along with a desire to find new ways to press the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to get more of his forces to take the lead, are combining to create a counterweight to an approach favored by the departing secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, and top military commanders in the field. They want gradual cuts that would keep American forces at a much higher combat strength well into next year, senior administration officials said.

The cost of the war and Mr. Karzai’s uneven progress in getting his forces prepared have been latent issues since Mr. Obama took office. But in recent weeks they have gained greater political potency as Mr. Obama’s newly refashioned national security team takes up the crucial decision of the size and the pace of American troop cuts, administration and military officials said. Mr. Obama is expected to address these decisions in a speech to the nation this month, they said.

A sharp drawdown of troops is one of many options Mr. Obama is considering. The National Security Council is convening its monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, and although the debate over troop levels is operating on a separate track, the assessments from that meeting are likely to inform the decisions about the size of the force.

The previous number I’ve heard bandied about was a drawdown of 10,000 troops, roughly 10% of the total force in Afghanistan. There’s no indication here of what a sharper withdrawal would look like, but the article puts the previous low number at 3-5,000. So it’s possible that 10,000 will be played up as a really big number.

But I think it could be even bigger. This certainly would explain Gates going public over the weekend in Afghanistan, warning of the consequences of a quick exit. Gates is usually much more buttoned up than that. Perhaps losing some of the battles internally, Gates expressed his concerns out loud.

During a visit to Kabul, Mr Gates said the operations against the Taliban had been effective over the past year, with notable gains achieved in the south.

If the strategy was maintained at least until the end of 2011, then “we can say we’ve turned the corner”, he said.

It could also create an “opening” for negotiations with the Taliban.

“I believe that if we can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban… and perhaps expand that security, then we will be in position toward the end of this year to perhaps have a successful opening to reconciliation” with the militants, Mr Gates said.

He added: “Or at least (we could) be in a position where we can say we’ve turned the corner here in Afghanistan. Making any changes prior to that time would be premature.”

And he said this at a press event in Afghanistan. Not in a meeting in the Oval Office. Gates is known to be a good bureaucratic operator. If I had to guess, I’d say his position has become the minority among the national security team, and he’s appealing publicly to force them to have to defy his warnings, or to signal to those in Washington who want the war to basically continue to play up these fears of losing ground to the enemy, and all the neocon fantasies about loss of will that connotes.

But the pressure inside the US is coming from the other side in recent weeks. That vote in Congress may not have succeeded, but it showed the White House that they were on the verge of being isolated on this war. Virtually the entire Democratic caucus, all but 8, voted for a faster exit.

Meanwhile, the US and Afghanistan are negotiating a strategic partnership agreement, similar to the status of forces agreement in Iraq. The AP describes it as easing Afghan worries that the US will abandon them. It seems to commit the US to a long-term presence, even though that presence would not necessarily be military. And there are the seeds of an explanation for the length of this war buried under the lede.

In the Iraq deal, Washington agreed not to use Iraq as a launching point for attacks on other nations. Such a condition might be a non-starter for the Obama administration, which launched the raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan from Afghanistan.

“Because of deep concerns over militant groups in the region, (U.S. officials) want some kind of launching area … to go after individuals and training camps,” (CAP’s Caroline) Wadhams said.

“They see few other basing options in the region. So, the U.S. government will push hard for this.”

Afghanistan: not a war but a staging ground.