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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?

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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.

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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.

Whether those gains will hold when US troops begin to depart – in other words, whether troops' ‘fragile and reversible gains’ are sustainable – will be the true test of US military success in the region, officials say.

“You take a brigade [approximately 5,000 US troops] out of the south, and you risk the reversion of that territory as a sanctuary for insurgents,” says Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Eastern Afghanistan, where surge forces are fewer, must also be a concern for General Allen. There, US troops face the Haqqani network, which many US military commanders consider to be more deadly than the Taliban – and with closer ties to Al Qaeda.

The Haqqani network also has the benefit of sanctuaries in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. “Our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan,” Obama acknowledged Wednesday night.

“The military has fought very, very hard to make progress in the south and the east of Afghanistan,” says Mr. Fontaine. “But with less troops, you have less ground you can cover, less places you can go, less people to fight,” he adds. “You’re going to have to do some of these same tasks with less people.”

For his part, Obama acknowledged Wednesday that there is more work to be done. “This is the beginning, but not the end,” he said, “of our effort to wind down this war.”

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