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Troop exit plan means hard choices for US commanders in Afghanistan

Obama's decision that all 30,000 'surge' forces must leave Afghanistan by end of next summer is not the troop exit plan US military leaders were hoping to hear. What choices confront them?

Spc. Gavin Fruge, 22, of Crowley, La., left, watches a rebroadcast of President Barack Obama's speech on proposed troop withdrawal with fellow soldiers at Kandahar Airfield Thursday, June 23, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

David Goldman/AP

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President Obama's decision that all 30,000 "surge" forces must be out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer is not what US military leaders were hoping to hear Wednesday night – and it portends some difficult choices ahead for on-the-ground commanders.

Those will fall mainly to incoming US commander in Afghanistan, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, who is slated to replace Gen. David Petraeus in September. Moreover, by the end of 2014, the US mission in Afghanistan will have transitioned from a combat role to a support role, Mr. Obama told the nation in his speech, which marked a pivot point in the 10-year US campaign in Afghanistan. He did not, however, specify how many US forces would remain in Afghanistan by then.

Obama “is betting that a smaller American force, combined with our NATO and Afghan allies, will be able to continue the counterinsurgency campaign until, by the end of 2014, only a residual presence of American advisers and special forces are required to secure American interests in the region,” says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. “He is probably right, but John Allen will have some difficult choices to make about battlefield geometry,” military parlance for how and where he arrays his remaining forces.

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