President Barack Obama will announce in his State of the Union address tonight that about 34,000 U.S. troops will be home from Afghanistan by this time next year, cutting the military presence there by half.
The U.S. will continue to reduce the number of military personnel through the end of 2014 as Afghans take full responsibility for their security and the U.S. role in the war comes to an end, the administration said in a statement distributed to reporters. Obama hasn’t made a decision about the timing of additional troop reductions.
The president made his decision after getting recommendations from the military and his national security team and countries involved in the Afghanistan fight. He discussed the decision by phone with President Hamid Karzai, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before the announcement, according to the White House.
The U.S. is continuing negotiations on a security agreement with Afghanistan on the size and scope of any mission beyond 2014, the statement said.
Obama, who will deliver his address at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, has been gradually winding down the longest war in U.S. history with a goal of having most of the American military out of the country by 2014. Under the current plan, the U.S. and its allies will provide support to the Afghans as they lead operations through critical fighting this year and 2014.
Pentagon officials have proposed keeping some troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to conduct operations against terrorists and to train Afghan forces. Doing so would require reaching a “status of forces agreement” with Karzai’s government that the U.S. says must include immunity for the troops from prosecution in his country’s legal system.
While the White House said almost 90 percent of operations are being led by Afghan forces, only one Afghan brigade out of 23 was ranked as capable of operating independently, even with the help of allied advisers, as of the end of September, according to a Pentagon report in December.
Marine General John Allen, who last weekend completed his term as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul on Feb. 10 that Afghan forces are almost completely leading operations and that he’s “comfortable” with their progress. At the same time, he said Afghan rhetoric about improving the workings of the government “isn’t enough.”
Afghanistan was listed among the world’s most corrupt countries last year, ranked at 174 of 176 nations, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that rates how corrupt the public sector is perceived to be.
The nation also remains a center of drug production and trafficking. Opium poppy cultivation increased 18 percent in 2012 from the previous year, according to the Afghanistan Opium Survey cited by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Adding to uncertainty is whether Karzai will keep his pledge to step down from the presidency when his term ends in 2014.
The war in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, has claimed 2,168 U.S. lives from hostile and non-hostile action, according to Pentagon figures as of yesterday.
The conflict has cost the U.S. about $611 billion so far, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit group in Northhampton, Massachusetts, that tracks federal spending. By comparison the war in Iraq cost $811 billion, according to the group.
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