Obama To Announce Withdrawal Of 34,000 U.S. Troops From Afghanistan

There were several key developments involving the U.S. military on Tuesday. President Obama was expected to announce in his State of the Union address that the U.S. will bring home 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by this time next year. That will cut the force in half. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also testified before Congress about where they would have to cut the force if across-the-board budget cuts, called sequestration, go into effect. Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talks to Melissa Block about the latest developments.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. will bring home 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by this time next year. President Obama is expected to announce the news tonight in his State of the Union address. That will cut the force in half and set the stage for the pullout of most of the remaining U.S. troops by the end of 2014. The drawdown from Afghanistan is just one of several developments today on Capitol Hill that will have a big impact on the Pentagon.

And NPR's Tom Bowman joins me now to walk us through them. Tom, 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan in a year. Is that number surprising?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, I think the sense was the troops would come out at a quicker pace. There's no secret that some in the White House favors deeper troop cuts. So it appears right now that they're leaving it to the generals to manage the withdrawal. And that would allow the military to keep a larger number of forces there through the fighting season, which runs roughly from April to October, and then bring out the bulk of the troops after that.

There are still some serious hotspots in Afghanistan, particularly in the east along the Pakistan border.

BLOCK: And, Tom, is there a consensus that you're hearing on whether - if they do withdraw these 34,000 over the next year - whether that leaves the military enough troops in Afghanistan to carry out the mission?

BOWMAN: You know, that's not certain. What we do know is the mission over there is evolving. The administration wants Afghan forces in the lead by this spring. And they want American troops to step back and focus on training and assisting the Afghans in things like logistics and supplies.

The administration says Americans, quote, "will no longer be leading combat operations." But that's easier said than done. I've been out many times with Afghan troops. They're definitely getting better but they have a ways to go. They have problems with attrition. They don't have enough junior officers and sergeants. And even the Pentagon says it only considers one Afghan brigade independent, and even that one needs advisors.

And all that said, this announcement tonight leaves more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than most expected. So in February 2014, you're still talking 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan 13 years after they invaded.

BLOCK: Now, Tom, the Pentagon is also dealing with the prospects of budget cuts that could kick in automatically in March, under the sequester. It was discussed on Capitol Hill today. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, the military brass was all there, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, along with the deputy defense secretary. And they all said the same thing: the military will be seriously hurt by these automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration. They said, for example, some ships won't sail, planes will be grounded, troops won't get trained, and hundreds of thousands of civilians will be furloughed.

BOWMAN: Here's the Pentagon's deputy defense secretary, the number two, Ash Carter, at today's hearing.

ASH CARTER: The mechanism of sequester which makes us cut everything in proportion is dumb, from any kind of managerial point of view. I have to say, though, at this point in the fiscal year, it doesn't matter that much. We have to go everywhere to get that $46 billion.

BLOCK: And, Tom, that notion from Ashton Carter that the sequester is dumb, why don't you flesh that out a bit, what are they talking about?

BOWMAN: Well, the problem with this is - with sequestration is that there's no logic to the cuts here. It's an across the board cut; a meat ax approach, some would say. So, you can't pick and choose where to make these cuts - everything is cut in right across the board. So that's a serious problem. You can't choose certain accounts to maybe trim back, let's say, operations and maintenance.

All these armored vehicles coming back from Afghanistan, maybe you don't have to fix them all at once. All the helicopters don't have to be fixed at once. So you could save some money here and there, maybe trim the Army back a little bit, the Marine Corps. Now they can't do that. Everything has to be cut across the board.

BLOCK: And last topic here, Tom, a key vote today on Chuck Hagel, the president's pick to be the next Defense secretary. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted along party lines to send Hagel's nomination to the Senate. And again, not one Republican supported his nomination to lead the Pentagon, even though Hagel's a former Republican senator. And there is talk that one or two Republican senators may put a hold on his nomination in the full Senate or even filibuster.

BLOCK: OK, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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