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Afghanistan withdrawal: How many troops will Obama remove?

Afghanistan withdrawal: How many troops will Obama remove?

It’s time for one of Washington favorite parlor games — predicting what the president will say before he says it.  What we know is that tomorrow President Obama will announce his plans for a troop reduction in Afghanistan. Thirty-three thousand surge troops were added in 2009, with the promise that by this summer they would begin to come home. But how many and how fast is still an open question.

Officially, the White House says the president is still "finalizing" his decision. And indeed, some of his key advisors reportedly disagree on what to do. Gen. David Petraeus– the current Afghanistan commander who will soon take over the CIA — and many of the generals are pushing for a pretty small initial withdrawal of no more than 3-4,000 troops. On the opposite extreme, some in the administration and outside want a far broader withdrawal. Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s senior advisor on Afghanistan, advocates pulling 15,000 troops out by the end of the year and another 15,000 by the end of 2012, according to the New York Times. Carl Levin, the influential senator and chair of the armed services committee, backs that approach as well. Vice President Joe Biden — who was a critic of the surge before it was cool — reportedly wants all 30,000 surge troops gone within 12 months. Defense Secretary Bob Gates is pushing for something in the range of 5,000 troops — a brigade — this year and another 5,000 over the next winter, according to the Times.

Where will Obama come down?

The L.A. Times cites Pentagon and administration officials saying the reduction will be about 10,000 by the end of the year. If true, it would be a significant move by Obama. Petraeus has warned Obama that taking out that many troops that quickly "could create problems for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan" especially if other countries follow America’s lead and begin withdrawing, the paper said.  But a faster withdrawal decision would seem to bolster the president politically at home. A recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of the country approves of Obama’s handling of the war but are growing impatient with the decade-old conflict.

The Washington Post cites administration officials saying Obama will likely remove far fewer than 10,000 — probably in the Pentagon-approved range of 3-5,000, though the officials warned that no final decision has been made.  Interestingly, according to the Post, the president had hoped to announce progress on another front at the same time as the troop withdrawal — reconciliation talks with the Taliban. But those talks have stalled and there is political confusion over the U.S.’s partner in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, whose rhetoric has been growing more and more incendiary — some would say unhinged — of late.

The New York Times presents a third theory, attributed to an "official," that the president tomorrow might not give any specific withdrawal number. He might only announce a date for the final drawdown of all the surge troops sometime in 2012 — but leave the timetable vague and rely on commanders in the field to make suggestions. This was the approach he used in Iraq. According to the Times, administration sources said the president would most likely pull out "the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012."