WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision to bring home within a year about half of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will shrink the force to the size he found it when he entered the White House vowing to reinvigorate a stalemated war.
Still to be decided: how many troops will remain beyond 2014, when the U.S.-led combat mission is scheduled to end. The stated goal is to prepare Afghanistan's army and police to handle the Taliban insurgency by then largely on their own.
Obama determined that his war goals could be achieved by bringing 34,000 U.S. troops home by this time next year, officials said, leaving somewhere between 32,000 and 34,000 to support and train Afghan forces. That is about the number in Afghanistan when he took office in January 2009; in a series of moves designed to reverse the Taliban's battlefield momentum, he tripled the total American force before starting to scale it back in the summer of 2011.
Obama's new move coincides with a major shake-up in his war command. Gen. Joseph Dunford took over Sunday for Gen. John Allen as the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is planning to retire as soon as his replacement is confirmed. Obama has nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel to take the Pentagon post. The Senate's Armed Services Committee voted Tuesday to send the nomination to the full Senate.
The decision also reflects Obama's determination to wind down the longest war in America's history. He has many other security problems to consider around the globe -- from North Korea's development of nuclear weapons to civil war in Syria to the spread of al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
In advance of Obama's announcement in his State of the Union speech, the White House said the president made his decision about 2013 troop reductions based on recommendations by the military and his national security advisers, as well as consultations with allies such as Britain and Germany and talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A Pentagon statement said Panetta fully supports Obama's troop reductions. In farewell remarks to Pentagon employees, Panetta said Tuesday he is confident the war strategy is on track. "We will be able to transition over these next two years to a point where the Afghans themselves can govern and secure themselves," he said.
The White House did not spell out the pace at which the 34,000 troops will be withdrawn over the coming year. Defense officials said it's likely that the bulk of them will be kept through summer. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the withdrawal had not been announced.
Private analysts are divided on the wisdom of accelerating the withdrawal of American forces. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote that he believes the current U.S. troop level should remain until autumn, when a seasonal lull in Taliban activity usually begins.
"The president should now be patient with what happens over the next eight months," O'Hanlon wrote in an opinion article for Politico, adding that Dunford needs time to consolidate progress in eastern Afghanistan.