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Obama To Focus On Troop Levels For Afghanistan

Now that the election is over, President Obama will have to decide how much the troop level will be reduced in Afghanistan next year. The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, is expected to provide a plan that will chart the timetable for withdrawing the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops — as well as how many troops will be needed after 2014. That's when the combat mission ends and a new training and counterinsurgency mission begins.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

And with a second term, President Obama will have to decide what's next in Afghanistan, and especially how fast to bring the troops home. We'll hear more about that later this week as the top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, testifies before a Senate committee. Now, technically, that is a confirmation hearing to approve him for his new job as supreme commander of U.S. and NATO forces. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it will be his current job in Afghanistan that will get all the attention.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: October was a busy month for General John Allen. White House and Pentagon officials came to Kabul to talk with him about a timeline for drawing down the remaining 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan and the pace of turning over security to Afghan troops. The White House wants to bring the troops home and hand over the job to the Afghans. Here's President Obama during one of the presidential debates in October.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we're now in a position where we can transition out, because there's no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.

BOWMAN: General Allen is now laying out his plan for U.S. troop levels through 2014, when the Afghans are expected to take full responsibility for their own security and the American combat mission comes to an end.

There may be some tension between the president and the military: the White House wants more troops out sooner. Some of Allen's Generals want no cuts in U.S. troops through the spring, when the traditional Taliban fighting season begins. Here's Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, who served as a number two officer in Afghanistan, in an interview with NPR back in May.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: Personally, I would like to stay at 68k through that first part of the year. And then, again, we'll make an assessment then and we'll decide what we need, you know, looking forward.

BOWMAN: So there's the debate: Should all 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan remain in Afghanistan well into next year? If not, how many are needed? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently sidestepped that question

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think we really want to have General Allen's best recommendation on that.

BOWMAN: Actually, General Allen will be making two recommendations. First, how quickly should combat forces be withdrawn over the next two years. The second: How many U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

President Obama already has said that the mission then will be training the Afghan forces and helping them in fighting terrorists. And military officials are considering 10,000 or more U.S. troops for those jobs. Again, that's after 2014. Secretary Panetta said that once that force level's determined, the Obama administration will turn to the big question.

PANETTA: What kind of path should we take in terms of being able to drawdown the 68,000.

BOWMAN: Sources say the White House is looking at cutting that force of 68,000 almost in half sometime next year.

SETH JONES: I think it's well within the realm of possibility for a substantial number of cuts from Afghanistan, including up to the 30,000 level.

BOWMAN: That's Seth Jones. He's a defense analyst with the Rand Corporation and is just back from Afghanistan. American military leaders there are wondering how they'll do the mission, says Jones, while the White House is more focused on cuts.

JONES: This is not about numbers, per say, this is about identifying what the key tasks the U.S. needs to do in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: And those key tasks include training Afghan forces and taking part in missions to kill or capture key Taliban leaders.

JONES: Then the question is, in order to do those tasks, how many military forces do we need in the country?

BOWMAN: But the dominant question within the administration is this one: How many troops can we cut in Afghanistan?

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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