In promising a U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan will begin in July, President Obama is permitting his commanders to decide critical details, including the number of troops to depart first and whether any of those will be combat forces, administration and military officials said Sunday.
Providing that leeway is important to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. It allows him to pace this year's phase of the withdrawal in a way that preserves combat power through the end of the traditional fighting season in October or November.
Obama said in a national address Wednesday that he was ordering 10,000 troops home by year's end; as many as 23,000 more are to leave by September 2012.
The 33,000 total is the number that Obama sent as reinforcements in December 2009 as part of an effort to reverse the Taliban's momentum and hasten an eventual political settlement of the conflict. The U.S. and its allies plan a full combat withdrawal by the end of 2014.
"Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year," Obama told the nation last week.
He did not say how many would leave in July.
In congressional testimony Thursday, neither Petraeus nor Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided details on what the July pullout would look like.
Petraeus, who is leaving his post this summer, said he was returning to Kabul to work out details of how he will fulfill the order to reduce by 10,000 by year's end and by an additional 23,000 next year.
There currently are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Mullen indicated that Obama was giving commanders wide latitude to shape the withdrawal, so long as they meet the president's broad timelines.
Petraeus and his designated successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, "will be given the flexibility -- inside these deadlines -- to determine the pace of this withdrawal and the rearrangement of remaining forces inside the country," Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee.
Allen's Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Other administration and military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Obama has left it to Petraeus to determine exactly how big a reduction to make in July and whether they include combat forces, so long as the drawdown reaches 10,000 by year's end.