U.S. troops wait to be transported by helicopter at Forward Operating Base… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will withdraw about half the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan over the coming year, a steep reduction that reflects President Obama's determination to end America's role in the 11-year-old conflict.
In his State of the Union address, Obama said 34,000 Americans would be brought home over the next 12 months, and further reductions will continue through the end of 2014, when all U.S. and other foreign troops are scheduled to leave.
"American troops will come home from Afghanistan," Obama said. "And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
The withdrawal appears sharper than some senior commanders in Afghanistan had initially recommended. They had sought to keep more U.S. troops in the field to backstop the Afghan army and security forces, especially during what is typically heavy fighting in the summer months, and to continue training Afghan forces, whose performance remains uneven.
But two senior Pentagon officials said Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who took over this week as the top commander in Afghanistan, would be able to decide how quickly to pull out troops as long as he brings 34,000 out by next February.
"Commanders will have discretion on the pace of this drawdown ... to maintain the force they need through the fighting season," said one of the officials, who requested anonymity in discussing internal deliberations.
Leon E. Panetta, the outgoing Defense secretary, "supports the plan," which "reflects the best military advice from commanders in the Pentagon and in the field," another official said.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the decision to announce the withdrawal a year in advance "needlessly fraught with risk."
Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to inform him of the plan, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to the White House.
Britain and Germany have troop contingents 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U.S. commanders and NATO allies have steadily withdrawn from combat operations in much of Afghanistan over the last year and handed more responsibilities to the Afghan army and police.
U.S. troops, especially special operations forces, remain deeply involved in daily combat in several areas, however, including Kandahar and Oruzgan provinces, where the insurgency remains strong.
But most of the military units that rotate into Afghanistan over the next 12 months will be trained and equipped primarily to advise Afghan forces, not to conduct full-scale offensive operations.
Army combat brigades there have been renamed "advise and assist" brigades and are being deployed in some instances at half their normal 3,500-soldier strength.
Commanders will keep enough troops and aircraft in the south and east to assist Afghan forces if they face heavy attack.
But U.S. forces will be spread more thinly than previously.
Obama has not announced how many, if any, U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014. The Pentagon has pushed to keep 6,000 to 9,000 troops there, but some White House officials have advocated a smaller contingent, with one official even suggesting publicly that the White House could opt to maintain no residual forces.
In his speech, Obama said the U.S. troops who remained in Afghanistan would focus on "training and equipping Afghan forces, so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of Al Qaeda and their affiliates."