As many as 34,000 U.S. troops will come home from Afghanistan in the next year as the U.S.-led coalition hands over security responsibility to Afghan security forces.
The announcement Feb. 12 by President Obama during his State of the Union address means the U.S. will reduce by about half the number of American troops currently in Afghanistan, resulting in the smallest U.S. force deployed in Afghanistan since January 2009.
"This spring, our forces will move into a support role while Afghan security forces take the lead," Obama said.
"Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue, and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
No details were available about how quickly the 34,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Officials also were not discussing what types of units might be redeployed or what the remaining force might look like this time next year.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a Feb. 13 briefing at the Pentagon, said the drawdown will take a "phased approach over the coming year" as U.S. and coalition forces continue to partner with the Afghans.
Afghan forces now lead nearly 90 percent of security operations across the country, Panetta said.
About 66,000 U.S. troops — about 56,900 of them soldiers — continue to serve in Afghanistan, and their primary mission is to train, advise and assist the fledgling Afghan security forces.
As recently as September, the U.S. military completed the drawdown of the 33,000 surge forces committed to Afghanistan in December 2009 by Obama, according to the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command public affairs office.
It's likely the U.S. will retain more than 60,000 troops through another fighting season, and that is neither the minimalist approach Obama's rhetoric suggests nor what his administration was likely seeking, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Army Times.
"This is a pretty good outcome for people who believe in the basic thrust of the campaign plan; it is a relatively strong and high number of troops on average over the next 18 months," O'Hanlon said.
"The implication is we'll presumably stay in that 30,000-plus range for much of 2014 before the downsizing."
‘Advise and assist'
Some decisions are likely in the coming months as a new commander takes the reins in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford on Feb. 10 assumed command of ISAF from Marine Corps Gen. John Allen.
Allen served 19 months as commander of ISAF, making him the longest-serving ISAF commander in the 11-year-old campaign.
Dunford, who previously served as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, could well be the last general to command ISAF in its current form as he leads the coalition toward the 2014 deadline.
So far, the security transition is not fully complete, according to IJC, but the focus of U.S. and coalition troops has "clearly and decisively shifted to train, advise and assist."
"From now until the end of 2014, I'm confident that Gen. Joe Dunford … will have the combat power he needs to protect our forces and to continue building up the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces," Panetta said.
The U.S.-led coalition is "on track" to meet its 2014 deadline, Panetta said.
"And we will maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, including through the continued training and equipping of Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida and their affiliates," he said.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said it was prepared to take full responsibility for security in 2013.
"We welcome the decision," Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told The Associated Press.
A key factor in the mission in Afghanistan as the U.S. moves toward 2014 is the Security Force Assistance Brigades.
There are seven SFABs currently in Afghanistan, according to IJC.
These brigades, similar to the Advise and Assist Brigades deployed to Iraq near the end of operations there, are smaller, tailored brigade combat teams tasked primarily with advising and training Afghan forces.
The Army has not yet seen a decrease in demand for boots on the ground, a senior Army planner with Forces Command told Army Times.
The planner, who spoke on background, said the Army continues to deploy SFABs as well as aviation, logistics, medical and many other types of enabler units into theater.
"Anything you would do to preserve your force all continue to be in high demand," he said.
"There's a lot of focus on our enablers, too, not just BCTs."
As the Army continues to provide troops as requested by commanders in theater, the senior planner said, it has been able to transition most of its troops from 12-month deployments to shorter nine-month tours.
This includes transitioning the combat aviation brigades, long in high demand and heavily deployed, to nine-month deployments as well, he said.
Corps and division headquarters troops still deploy for 12 months, along with some high-demand military specialties on a case-by-case basis, he said.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the senior Army planner said he expects dwell time for soldiers to grow.
The Army's goal for active-duty forces continues to be a deployment to dwell time ratio of 1:2, he said.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.