WASHINGTON - President Obama plans to announce Tuesday that 34,000 more U.S. troops will be home from Afghanistan at this time next year, said people familiar with his State of the Union speech.
That would reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan by about half, and maintain the schedule to end the U.S. combat mission within two years.
Obama will also say that reductions will continue through the end of 2014 as Afghans take responsibility for their own security.
Officials familiar with the plan spoke on condition of anonymity, deferring to Obama's speech Tuesday tonight. .
The president does not plan to provide numbers for any kind of residual force after 2014, a topic that remains subject to negotiations with Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has said the functions of U.S. forces after 2014 will center on a counterterrorism mission focused on al-Qaeda and other global threats and advising and supporting Afghan security forces.
The 34,000 withdrawal is the latest phase in a transition plan that the U.S., Afghanistan, and allies developed at recent NATO summits in Lisbon and Chicago.
Afghan forces have been taking a larger role in providing security as American troops withdrawal. U.S. forces reached a peak of 100,000.
The reduction of American forces will test Afghanistan's newly fielded army as another fighting season approaches this summer.
"Mullah Omar has decreed that he wants to make 2013 an intense year," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to a statement from the Taliban leader.
This year is different in that the intensity will be aimed at Afghan security forces, Dempsey said. Afghan forces are now leading 90% of the operations and taking the bulk of casualties.
"What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan security forces and its people in them," Dempsey said this weekend on his way to Afghanistan to attend a ceremony marking a change of command there.
Marine Gen. John Allen turned over command of coalition forces in Afghanistan to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. Dempsey said the turnover held important symbolism, as the United States changes its role in Afghanistan.
"The symbolism is ...for me evidence of the challenge of managing transitions," Dempsey said.
The challenge for the United States is to withdraw U.S. forces without giving the appearance of abandoning Afghanistan.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to the collapse of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government within several years, an event that casts a dark shadow of recent Afghan history.
The United States and its allies have pledged to support Afghanistan's economy and help fund its security forces after most combat forces withdraw.
"The United States remains fully committed to a long-term strategic partnership with the Afghan Government and the Afghan people," according to a senior administration official.
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