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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military commanders distanced themselves on Thursday from President Barack Obama's timetable for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, telling Congress they had sought a slower, less risky drawdown.
General David Petraeus, who is leading the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were clear in stating their public support for the decision Obama announced on Wednesday and said they would do their best to carry it out.
But at the same time they warned that the pace of the drawdown, which calls for a third of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to leave by the end of next summer, would create additional risks to the unpopular, nearly decade-old campaign.
"The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept," Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, told a House of Representatives committee hearing.
Pressed by lawmakers, Mullen later added that he had concluded that the risks were manageable.
Petraeus scoffed at a suggestion he could have resigned over the president's plan. Obama, he said, ultimately had to factor in more than just battlefield conditions when making his decision -- an apparent reference to crumbling domestic support for the Afghan war.
"It is again a more aggressive approach than (top commanders) and I would have indeed certainly put forward, but this is not something I think where one hangs up the uniform in protest, or something like that," Petraeus said at his Senate nomination hearing to become the next CIA director.
Obama, speaking to about 200 soldiers at an Army base in upstate New York, defended his drawdown timetable and said the United States had turned a corner in the campaign that would allow for withdrawal.
"We're not doing it precipitously. We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained," Obama told soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, who listened mostly in silence.
But the military's comments, while carefully phrased, were an unusually blunt public admission of initial Pentagon resistance to the kind of speedy Afghan drawdown that Obama settled on. Military leaders had lobbied privately for more time, and outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates said publicly any troop withdrawal should be modest.
Gates, in an interview with PBS NewsHour, came out in support of Obama's decision, saying: "As I listened to the debate go forward, I became a strong advocate (for) the end of summer as one (option) that struck a balance between our military needs and sustainability here at home."
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Washington's ally in a relationship made tense by allegations of incompetence and corruption, welcomed the plan for a gradual pullout and said Afghans increasingly trusted their security forces.
European nations that have contributed troops to the military effort against the Afghan Taliban insurgency said they would proceed with already planned phased reductions. They included France, Germany, Poland and Spain.
The Taliban, resurgent a decade after being toppled from power by U.S.-led forces following the September 11 attacks, dismissed Obama's announcement and said only a full, immediate withdrawal of foreign forces could stop "pointless bloodshed."
The group rejected any suggestion of U.S. military gains.
Obama's decision divided Congress, with some lawmakers demanding a more rapid pullout and others branding Obama's drawdown a dangerous political move to appease his Democratic base before the 2012 presidential election.
Calls to end the war have accelerated in the wake of the May 2 U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"The bottom line is no number of troops will resolve the challenge of Afghanistan," Democratic Senator John Kerry said on Thursday.
Senator John McCain, a Republican who lost to Obama in the 2008 election, said, "I think we're taking a huge unnecessary risk."
Analysts said the risks of failure might be rising as the United States withdraws troops despite a stubborn Taliban enemy, rampant corruption and persistent militant safe havens in Pakistan.
Still, nearly 70,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in Afghanistan even after the cuts announced by Obama, about twice the number when he took office in January 2009.
Undersecretary of Defence Michele Flournoy, appearing at the committee hearing alongside Mullen, said, "Clearly, this is not a 'rush to the exits' that will jeopardize our security gains."
Mullen said bringing home troops offered some benefits, including reinforcing the goal of putting Afghans in control of their own security by the end of 2014.
"The truth is, we would have run other kinds of risks by keeping more forces in Afghanistan longer. We would have made it easier for the Karzai administration to increase their dependency on us," Mullen said.
The Taliban has been pushed out of some areas of its southern heartland, but the insurgency has intensified along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, and U.S. commanders have wanted to shift their focus to that area.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing separately before a Senate committee, acknowledged there was no military solution to the conflict and said the United States had a broad range of contacts in search of a political resolution.
Asked if there were a possibility for a peace agreement with the Taliban, Clinton said, "I think there is, but I think that we're a long way from knowing what the realistic elements of such an agreement would be."
"I can only stress that we are committed to pursuing it, because it is the only path forward, there is no other path forward. Nobody is strong enough to really assert control," she said.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Fort Drum, New York, David Alexander, Susan Cornwell, Missy Ryan and Jim Wolf in Washington; David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Paul Tait and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Paul Simao