President Obama announced in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be halved over the next 12 months, pledging that “our war in Afghanistan will be over” by the end of 2014.
The president said he will withdraw 34,000 troops by this time next year, at which point about 34,000 U.S. military personnel will be left in Afghanistan. He pledged that “this drawdown will continue” throughout 2014, although the final target has not been determined.
“Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us,” Obama said. “Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan.”
Administration officials said Obama’s decision is line with a recommendation from Gen. John R. Allen, who had been the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan until Sunday. Allen submitted a set of withdrawal options to the president several weeks ago, the officials said, and the general’s “preferred option” was to pull out 34,000 troops by February 2014.
“What we chose was his recommendation,” a White House official said.
But other commanders, including Allen’s replacement, have favored a slower withdrawal, according to U.S. officials briefed by senior officers involved in the war.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who assumed command of the war from Allen, had been seeking a reduction of no more than 25,000 troops this year, leaving about 43,000 in Afghanistan in 2014 to continue training local security forces and providing security for the country’s next presidential election, which is scheduled for April 2014, according to a senior U.S. official aligned with the military leadership.
“This is steeper than we had hoped for,” the official said. “Pulling out 34,000 leaves us dangerously low on military personnel while the fledgling Afghan army and police still need our support. It’s going to send a clear signal that America’s commitment to Afghanistan is going wobbly.”
But many of the president’s top civilian national security advisers believe that removing half of the troops in the next 12 months will leave enough forces to train the Afghan army and help provide security for the election.
These advisers cited two other important issues in determining the pace of the withdrawal, which must be largely complete by the end of 2014, when the NATO military mission is set to end. First, they would like to reduce the financial burden of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which costs about $1 million a year for each service member. Second, they are looking for as much time as possible to meet the logistical challenge of removing troops and equipment from a landlocked nation.
Even military officers acknowledge that it would be difficult to withdraw large numbers of forces, a process that involves closing bases and shipping material through several Central Asian nations, in just one year.
Although the Obama administration intends to keep some troops in the country in 2015 and beyond, the number is still being debated at the White House and must be approved by the Afghan government. The Pentagon is pushing a plan that would keep about 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2015 but significantly shrink the contingent over the following two years, perhaps to fewer than 1,000 by 2017, according to senior U.S. government officials and military officers.
“Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change,” Obama said. “We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”
The White House intends to allow the military to determine the pace at which the 34,000 troops are withdrawn over the coming 12 months. Top officers have said they hope to keep as many forces as possible in the country through the summer, when combat with the Taliban is usually at its highest.
About 68,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. The military’s withdrawal plan calls for that figure to drop to about 60,000 by May and 52,500 by November. The largest exodus will occur in December and January, when about 18,500 troops will head home.
Obama administration officials asserted that the 34,000-troop reduction would not adversely affect security because Afghan forces now lead about 90 percent of military operations across the country. Under an agreement struck by Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month, Afghan forces will take charge of almost all military operations nationwide by spring. The remaining U.S. troops will focus on training and assisting Afghan forces.