President Obama plans to announce Tuesday that 34,000 more U.S. troops will be home from Afghanistan at this time next year, said people familiar with his State of the Union speech.
That would reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan by about half, and maintain the schedule to end the U.S. combat mission within two years.
Obama will also say that reductions will continue through the end of 2014 as Afghans take responsibility for their own security.
Officials familiar with the plan spoke on condition of anonymity, deferring to Obama's speech Tuesday night.
The president does not plan to provide numbers for any kind of residual force after 2014, a topic that remains subject to negotiations with Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has said the functions of U.S. forces after 2014 will center on a counter-terrorism mission focused on al-Qaeda and other global threats and advising and supporting Afghan security forces.
The 34,000 withdrawal is the latest phase in a transition plan that the U.S., Afghanistan and allies developed at recent NATO summits in Lisbon, Portugal, and Chicago.
Analysts say the president's decision allows the military to keep most U.S. forces through this fighting season and then draw down more sharply next fall and winter.
The number of U.S. troops has already declined from a high of about 100,000 in 2010 to 66,000 now.
The new plan still allows for the Pentagon to keep the bulk of its forces through a new fighting season which starts in the spring when the mountain snows melt.
The plan calls for withdrawing an initial 7,500 between now and May and leaves about 50,000 U.S. troops through this summer's fighting season, said Mark Jacobson, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former deputy NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan. Jacobson attended a briefing Tuesday with senior White House officials.
"This is not a dramatic decrease," Jacobson said. "This is reflective of the path that was set out in Lisbon."
This year's fighting season is expected to be critical because it will serve to test Afghanistan's newly fielded army.
"Mullah Omar has decreed that he wants to make 2013 an intense year," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to a statement from the Taliban leader.
This year is different in that the intensity will be aimed at Afghan security forces, Dempsey said. Afghan forces are now leading 90% of the operations and taking the bulk of the casualties.
"What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan security forces and its people in them," Dempsey said this weekend on his way to Afghanistan to attend a ceremony marking a change of command there.
Marine Gen. John Allen turned over command of coalition forces in Afghanistan to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. Dempsey said the turnover held important symbolism, as the United States changes its role in Afghanistan.
The challenge for the United States is to withdraw U.S. forces without appearing to abandon Afghanistan.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to the collapse of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government by 1992, an event that casts a dark shadow over recent Afghan history.
The United States and its allies have pledged to support Afghanistan's economy and help fund its security forces after most combat forces withdraw.
"The United States remains fully committed to a long-term strategic partnership with the Afghan government and the Afghan people," said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified.