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Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring next week, issued a statement Wednesday night saying he supports the president’s decision because “it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”

Some in Congress have suggested that Obama was playing politics with the war plan.

Potential GOP presidential candidates were quick to weigh in with criticism.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama of proposing an “arbitrary timetable” and said the decision on withdrawing troops “should not be based on politics or economics.” Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said the approach in Afghanistan should be focused on counterterrorism, “which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight.”

Military commanders favored a plan that would allow them to keep as many of the 30,000 surge troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, ideally through the end of 2012.

Also Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised that his nation’s youth will stand up and defend Afghanistan as the U.S. begins to pull out. Karzai thanked international troops for their support and said “the people of Afghanistan will be protecting their homeland.”

As he works to sell his withdrawal plan, Obama on Thursday was to visit Fort Drum, the upstate New York Army post that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the divisions deployed most frequently to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama ordered more than 30,000 “surge” forces to Afghanistan in 2009 in order to rescue a flailing effort, and promised to start bringing them home in July of this year. In his speech Wednesday night, he declared: “The tide of war is receding.”

Most Americans oppose continuing the war in Afghanistan. At least 1,500 members of the U.S. military have died and 12,000 have been wounded since the war began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year.

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Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor, Matthew Lee and Donna Cassata in Washington and Solomon Moore in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.