WASHINGTON -- In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Obama will announce plans to withdraw half the U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan over the next year, a steep reduction that reflects his determination to end the American role in the 11-year-old conflict, a senior administration official said.
About 34,000 Americans will be withdrawn over the next 12 months and "further reductions will continue through the end of 2014," when nearly all U.S. troops are scheduled to leave, the official said in a statement released by the White House.
Top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan had sought to retain nearly 60,000 troops through September, arguing that they will be needed to backstop the Afghan army and security forces through the summer's normally heavy fighting, and to continue training Afghan forces, whose performance remains uneven on the battlefield.
Pentagon officials closed ranks to support the faster drawdown, according to a senior Defense Department official.
Leon E. Panetta, the outgoing secretary of Defense, “supports the plan to continue drawing down our forces over the coming year in Afghanistan. The approach you'll hear from the president tonight reflects the best military advice from commanders in the Pentagon and in the field,” the official said.
The schedule of the withdrawals was not disclosed, although White House officials have said troops will leave at a steady pace.
Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to inform him of the planned withdrawal, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Britain and Germany have troops in Afghanistan as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force.
U.S. commanders and NATO allies have steadily withdrawn from combat operations in much of Afghanistan over the last year, handing over more responsibilities to the Afghan army and police. American troops remain deeply involved in daily combat in several areas, however, including Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces, where the insurgency remains strong.
Other U.S. troops are chiefly focused on training Afghan forces and serving as a backup force for emergencies.
A formal announcement that Afghanistan is taking the lead on security operations across the country is expected this spring.
Obama has not announced a decision on how many, if any, U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The Pentagon has pushed to keep 6,000 to 9,000 troops, but some White house officials have advocated a smaller contingent, with one official even suggesting publicly that the White House could opt to keep no residual forces.
Any U.S. troops that remain after the drawdown will have “two narrow missions,” the White House statement said, “targeting the remains of Al Qaeda and training Afghan security forces.”
“The president will not be making any further announcements about troop numbers tonight, nor has he made any decisions beyond the one he is announcing,” the statement said.