Obama plan would bring most U.S. forces home from Afghanistan by end of 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama will unveil an Afghanistan force drawdown plan on Wednesday that is expected to call for the withdrawal of the 33,000 U.S. troops deployed in last year's surge by the end of 2012, U.S. defense officials said.

An initial reduction of 5,000 troops would take place this year, followed by another 5,000 soldiers next spring, with the remainder expected to come out by December 2012, said a person with knowledge of the plan who couldn't be named because the plan hasn't been made public. The drawdown's pace would be dictated by the rate at which Afghan security forces could replace the American units.

Some 67,000 U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan after the expected reductions. Most would leave by the end of 2014, when plans call for the Afghan government to assume full responsibility for the country's security.

Obama's decision reflects the rising opposition to the war in both political parties and among a majority of Americans weary of a decade of foreign conflict and unhappy over the sluggish U. S. economic recovery, high unemployment and growing federal budget deficit.

The pressure for a withdrawal intensified after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden May 2 at the al-Qaida leader's hideout near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Finally, some U.S. officials and commanders question how much has been achieved in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

By announcing a withdrawal of all 33,000 U.S. troops deployed in the surge, Obama could claim success for the war strategy that he unveiled in December 2009 as he campaigns for a second term.

"Politically, he (Obama) knows the war is extremely unpopular so he wants to run saying, 'I kept my promise,'" said Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center. "His hope is that the public will not dwell on the fact that there would be more troops in Afghanistan at the start of the second Obama administration, if he gets re-elected, than when took office in January 2009."

About 40,000 other foreign soldiers of the U.S.-led NATO peacekeeping force are in Afghanistan. Britain and Germany — the largest contributors after the U.S. —are expected to unveil troop reductions at a ratio similar to that announced by Obama, U.S. defense officials said.

The plan would carry considerable risks. Foremost is whether the Afghan military and police will be capable of taking over security in the key areas of the Taliban's southern strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces from which U.S. and British troops would be withdrawn.

Moreover, a major drawdown could hinder efforts by the U.S., its allies and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to begin formal talks on a peace accord with the Taliban and allied groups if the insurgents believe they will be facing weaker international forces.

In announcing his war strategy in December 2009, Obama pledged to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal next month. He has been reviewing options presented to him last week by the commander of U.S.-led international forces, Army Gen. David Petraeus.

"He's finalizing his decision," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

This year's 5,000-troop reduction, according to the person with knowledge, would be achieved by canceling the deployment set for next month of a 3,000-strong brigade combat team. Another 2,000 support troops currently in Afghanistan would not be replaced, he said.

The president also plans to cancel the deployment next spring of a second 3,000-member brigade combat team and an additional 2,000 support troops.

Obama is expected to announce the two deployment cancellations during a visit to Fort Drum, N.Y., scheduled for Thursday.