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Afghan withdrawal plan under fire

The United States' top military officer and its top diplomat have made clear that President Barack Obama rejected the advice of his generals in choosing a quicker path to winding down the war in Afghanistan.

The Obama troop withdrawal plan, widely interpreted as marking the beginning of the end of the US combat role in Afghanistan, drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans decried it as undercutting the military mission at a critical stage of the war, while many Democrats called it too timid.

Senator John McCain took a swipe at Mr Obama from the Senate floor, questioning the timing of his troop pull-out plan.

"Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners - the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective," Mr McCain said.

Mr Obama announced that he will pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by December and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.

On Thursday, the president spoke at New York's Fort Drum to troops and commanders of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. Its headquarters staff is in southern Afghanistan and its soldiers have been among the most frequently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Mr Obama said that he is not pulling home troops "precipitously" or risking the gain they have achieved.

"We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained," he said. "Because of you, we're now taking the fight to the Taliban, instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to us. And because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical for consolidating that country."

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supports the Obama plan, although he had recommended a less aggressive draw-down schedule. Mr Obama's approach adds risk to the military mission, Admiral Mullen said. But he added: "It's manageable risk."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tacitly acknowledged the military had wanted more troops to remain for a longer period of time. And she said the keys to finally ending the conflict will be political negotiations with the Taliban leadership and managing a highly contentious relationship with Pakistan.

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