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Troop exit plan means hard choices for US commanders in Afghanistan

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Pentagon officials have warned that drawing down US troops before Afghan forces are ready to take over the fight against radical Islamist insurgents could threaten the “fragile and reversible gains” that the US military says it has made against the Taliban, particularly in southern Afghanistan.

But the president's timetable offers some flexibility for US commanders. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had lobbied for a more modest drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops by year’s end, made that point in a statement supporting Obama’s plan.

“Over the past 18 months our troops have made tremendous progress degrading the capability of the Taliban while enhancing the Afghan security forces. It is critical that we continue to aggressively prosecute that strategy,” he said. “I support the President’s decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”

Pentagon officials were relieved, for example, that Obama did not specify that the 10,000 US troops who must exit Afghanistan by year’s end have to be combat troops. Last week, 27 senators (25 Democrats and two Republicans) signed an open letter to Obama demanding a significant troop withdrawal and specifying that exiting troops should not be limited to support troops – such as base engineers and logisticians – but include combat troops.

The majority of surge forces are in southern Afghanistan – restive Helmand Province and the Taliban heartland of Kandahar. The US surge forces, combined with other NATO and Afghan troops, have given commanders an impressive ratio of one security force for every five to ten “military age males” in the general population, according to a US official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about US military operations. “With those kinds of ratios, anything’s possible,” he adds.

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