WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has declared that the US war in Afghanistan ‘will be over’ by late 2014.  In his annual State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night, Obama said on February 12 that 34,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan over the next year - cutting by more than half the current 66,000-strong US deployment. “This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead,” Obama said.

“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 pledged the United States would remain committed to Afghanistan after 2014, but he did not provide details.

Obama said Al-Qaeda was now only a ‘shadow of its former self’ after years of operations against the militant group in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home,” Obama told wildly cheering lawmakers in his first address after winning a second four-year term in November 2012.

But the president did not spell out what US military presence would remain after 2014, when the US-led combat mission is scheduled to end. The stated goal is to prepare Afghanistan’s army and police to handle the Taliban insurgency largely on their own by then.

“We can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of Al-Qaeda,” Obama said, praising the sacrifices made since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled its Taliban government.

Obama’s new move, announced in his State of the Union speech, coincides with a major shake-up in his war command. Gen Joseph Dunford took over Sunday for Gen John Allen as the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan, and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is planning to retire as soon as his replacement is confirmed. Obama has nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel to take the Pentagon post, and the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 Tuesday to advance the nomination to the full Senate for a vote possibly later this week.

“The organisation that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self,” he said. “Different Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged — from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.” Obama’s decision also reflects Obama’s determination to wind down a war that is the longest in America’s history. He has many other security problems to consider around the globe — from North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons to civil war in Syria to the worrisome spread of Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

The White House said the president made his decision about 2013 troop reductions based on recommendations by the military and his national security advisers, as well as consultations with allies such as Britain and Germany and talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama’s 2009 review of Afghan policy and is now at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, said a crucial factor will be the extent to which Al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan continues to degrade.

A stronger Al-Qaeda in neighbouring Pakistan means the United States would need a more robust counter-terrorism presence, for example, he said.

“The president is rightly not making that decision now when he doesn’t have to,” said Riedel, who heads the Intelligence Project at Brookings.

“He should wait and see how much success we have against (al Qaeda core).

Obama said “While his administration has kept Congress informed of its terrorism fighting efforts, “I recognise that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way.

“So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world,” the president said. The leaders of Iran also must recognize it’s time for a diplomatic solution because a coalition of countries demand it and “we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.” He said the United States will join its allies to eradicate extreme poverty in the most impoverished parts of the world during in the next two decades.