Pakistani driver assistants chat Feb. 11 while sitting on a truck carrying NATO Humvees at a terminal on the Pakistani-Afghan border in Chaman, Pakistan. The U.S. has started using the land route through Pakistan to pull American military equipment out of Afghanistan. President Obama is expected to detail drawdown plans tonight in his State of the Union. (Matiullah Achakzai / AP)
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President Obama will announce tonight that 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will return home by this time next year — halving the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, senior administration officials confirm.
Obama will not make any further announcements on troop levels in Afghanistan in tonight's State of the Union Speech, a senior administration official said. It is unknown how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — if any.
"Afghan forces are leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country, and by this spring, they'll be assuming the lead across the entire country, with the United States and ISAF stepped back to a train, advise and assist role," the official said in an email. "By the end of 2014, we will responsibly bring our war in Afghanistan to a close."
The U.S. and Afghanistan are negotiating over the size of a residual force to remain in Afghanistan after most NATO troops depart. Similar negotiations with Iraq ended in failure in 2011, when the Iraqi government refused to extend immunity from Iraqi law to U.S. troops.
Between now and the end of 2014, the U.S. Air Force will play a central role in transporting troops and cargo out of Afghanistan.
Ground routes through neighboring Pakistan are dangerous and unreliable, and a system of railways and truck lines known as the Northern Distribution Network stretches thousands of miles from Central Asia through Russia and the Baltic republics — a slow, tenuous and costly course.
In December, the Government Accountability Office estimated that 65 percent of equipment would leave Afghanistan by air and sea, but a spokeswoman for U.S. Transportation Command said the majority of cargo is slated to leave via Pakistan.
"Planning guidance is for 55 to 65 percent of U.S. military cargo to redeploy through Pakistan and then loaded onto ships for transport back to the point of origin or reset," Cynthia Bauer said in an email.
Pakistan closed its ground supply routes to NATO from November 2011 until July 2012 after the U.S. mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops in an airstrike.
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com.com reader">Kristin Davis contributed to this report.