The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan has shifted into a higher gear, with nearly half the troops set to leave over the next year.
President Obama plans to announce in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that 34,000 troops will leave Afghanistan in the next 12 months as the U.S. prepares to end combat operations there by the end of 2014, according to a senior administration official.
Mr. Obama is still negotiating with Afghan officials about how large a residual U.S. force will remain and during the speech will give more specifics about U.S. involvement in the country after 2014, although there are no plans to make any further announcements about troop numbers Tuesday night, the administration official said.
Mr. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed in January to accelerate the handover of combat operations to Afghan forces, which are now 352,000 strong and leading 90 percent of operations across the country. By the spring, they will take over the lead in all operations, with the United States and other countries who have trained them stepping back to take an advisory role.
"In that capacity, we will no longer be leading operations through the crucial fighting seasons of 2013 and 2014," the official said. "By the end of 2014, we will responsibly bring our war in Afghanistan to a close."
Before the White House released plans to withdraw 34,000 troops over the next year, Mr. Obama spoke on the phone with Mr. Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Previously, the White House has suggested keeping up to 9,000 troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends there, but administration officials said they would continue negotiating with Afghan officials and could wind up leaving no troops in the country.
"The United States remains fully committed to a long-term strategic partnership with the Afghan government and the Afghan people," the official said. "We remain in negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement with the Afghan government that would contemplate two marrow missions for the United States beyond 2014: targeting the remnants of al Qaeda and training Afghan Security Forces.
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