Obama sets sights on exit from Afghanistan war

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama's announcement to withdraw half the US force in Afghanistan shows his determination to end the war, but leaves open the question of long-term American support for Kabul.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama unveiled plans to scale back American forces from 66,000 to 32,000 within 12 months, as part of a long-standing goal by Washington and its allies to pull out nearly all combat troops by the end of 2014.

"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," Obama said.

The move reflects the administration's commitment to turn the page on the conflict, after concluding that a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign was not worth pursuing amid stalemate on the battlefield and more than a decade of troop casualties, analysts said.

"The administration and the president have been very clear over the last 18 months or more that the drawdown would continue at a steady pace. It just represents a continuation of the administration's plan," said David Barno, a retired general who commanded US troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

Although most Americans have grown weary of the war, some Republican lawmakers worry the withdrawal pace is too fast and will play into the hands of Taleban insurgents American troops have been fighting since 2001.

But officials say US and NATO forces need to start handing more responsibility to Afghan government forces and that senior officers on the ground will have flexibility to adjust the drawdown as needed.

"The commanders will have discretion on the pace of the withdrawal," a senior defence official said. And the "focus will be keeping as many forces in play until after the fighting season" ends in the fall, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.