US President Barack Obama was poised last night to announce the withdrawal of 34,000 US troops from Afghanistan over the next year, cutting in half the number of soldiers in the former al-Qa'ida haven.
The first hard numbers on the planned withdrawal of US forces emerged as Mr Obama (pictured below) prepared to deliver his annual State of the Union address to a US Congress that remains paralysed with division on several key issues, including debt, climate change and gun control.
Britain has announced plans to pull out 3,800 of its 9,000 troops by the end of this year and other Nato nations are well on their way to leaving completely.
Coalition generals have pushed to maintain existing troop levels throughout this year's so-called summer "fighting season", resisting pressure for a faster drawdown from some civilian advisers in the Obama administration.
Analysts in Washington said that the deliberately vague terms of the planned announcement could allow Mr Obama to finesse the disagreement between politicians and generals.
Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the announcement was still in keeping with expectations that the bulk of the promised US troop withdrawals would not begin until the autumn.
"Mr Obama wants to tell a war-weary nation that we're getting out of Afghanistan," Mr O'Hanlon said. "The timeframe of this announcement means he can do that, but at the same time give the generals what they need for the 2013 fighting season."
Mr Obama will not make any further announcements about troop numbers in his speech, "nor has he made any decisions beyond the one he is announcing", a White House official said.
The prospect of thousands of foreign troops withdrawing has terrified many Afghans who fear abandonment, a return to Taliban control, or a repeat of the 1990s civil war.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the architect of Kabul's plan to assume control as Nato forces leave, moved to reassure the public, promising that the newly built Afghan forces would be able to preserve security.
Aside from Afghanistan, Mr Obama is expected to devote the great majority of his speech to domestic affairs, particularly on re-building the US economy.
"It will be about the 'M' word: middle-class," Mr Sperling said. "It will be about jobs."
Mr Obama is expected to argue that moves to reduce long-term debt must not be made at the expense of growth-spurring investment in America's future, including education, infrastructure and technology. (© Daily Telegraph, London)