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We present a theory of the soliton laser which examines how an external optical fiber enables a laser to produce shorter pulses than it could produce alone. We begin by discussing a phenomenological laser model which shows how the lower limit to the mode-locked pulse width can arise. This model is coupled to an external optical fiber cavity, into which a part of the output beam is launched. The returning pulse from the fiber cavity is then mixed with a circulating pulse in the laser at the output mirror. We have found stable solutions which are nearly periodic in the external cavity. We also find more than one solution for a given set of model parameters, depending on the initial conditions. The radiation (non-soliton) part of the propagation in the optical fiber cannot be ignored. It acts as a buffer between the tendency of the fiber to produce solitons, and the fact that a pure soliton is not an exact fixed point of the laser model.