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."


Austrian villages, made in China

Pop quiz: what do you do if you're Chinese and you want to see a picturesque Austrian village? Go to Austria? Ha.

China-based developer China Minmetals Ltd. has a better idea: go to that famous font of German tradition, Guangdong Province. Der Spiegel reports:

An idyllic Austrian village has apparently impressed Chinese architects so much that they have decided to copy it in their own country. But the townspeople living in the UNESCO World Heritage site are unhappy about the plans.

Residents of the Austrian mountain town of Hallstatt, population 800, are scandalized. A Chinese firm has plans to replicate the village -- including its famous lake -- in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Austrian media reported this week.

The construction of Hallstatt comes at a time when outbound Chinese tourism is skyrocketing, reshaping the landscape of global tourism. Tourism didn't become legal in China until 1978, after Mao's death. Nonetheless, the World Tourism Organization estimates that the total number of Chinese tourists traveling internationally could hit 130 million by 2020. A recent surge in Chinese tourists traveling to Europe has carved out a sort of Chinese "Grand Tour" with non-traditional destinations like Luxembourg and Metzingen, home of German suitmaker Hugo Boss. Still, Chinese citizens continue to travel plenty within their own country, making 2.1 billion domestic trips in 2010 alone.

China Minmetals' ploy is only the latest instance of Chinese architects recreating European cities and towns at home. Shanghai has mini-replicas of Barcelona and Venice, while Chengdu has its own British Town modeled on Dorchester, a market town near the south coast of England. Guess those 40 Chinese UNESCO World Heritage sites (including the Kaiping villages in Guangdong, 120 miles from the proposed site for the Austrian transplants) just won't cut it.

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