President Obama delivers the State of the Union Address on Tuesday. / Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan by 34,000 by this time next year still gives the coalition enough muscle to support Afghan security forces as they battle through another fighting season this summer while staying on track to wrap up the combat mission in two years, military officials and analysts say.
Obama announced his plan Tuesday night during his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress.
"Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan," Obama said. "This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
The plan allows for leaving about 50,000 U.S. troops through November, said Mark Jacobson, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former deputy NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan. Jacobson attended a briefing Tuesday with senior White House officials. Steeper declines will come after that, leaving about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan next February.
"This is not a dramatic decrease," Jacobson said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement the troop withdrawal plan was based on a recommendation from Marine Gen. John Allen, who just relinquished command of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The 34,000-troop withdrawal is the latest phase in a transition plan that the United States, Afghanistan and allies developed at recent NATO summits in Lisbon, Portugal, and Chicago.
The number of U.S. troops has already declined from a high of about 100,000 in 2010 to 66,000 now.
This year's fighting season is expected to be a critical test for Afghan security forces, who are leading most combat operations now.
"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 over the weekend. Afghan forces are now leading 90% of the operations and taking the bulk of the casualties.
"What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan security forces and its people in them," Dempsey said on his way to Afghanistan to attend the change of command ceremony where Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford assumed command from Allen.
The challenge for the United States is to withdraw U.S. forces without appearing to abandon Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of troops from the Soviet Union in 1989 led to the collapse of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government by 1992, an event that casts a dark shadow over 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 president did not provide numbers for any kind of residual force after 2014, a topic that remains subject to negotiations with Afghanistan.
But officials said America will stay engaged. The United States "will maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan including through the continued training and equipping of Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and their affiliates," Panetta said in the statement.
The Pentagon has said the functions of U.S. forces after 2014 will center on a counter-terrorism mission focused on al-Qaeda and other global threats and advising and supporting Afghan security forces.
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