WHITE HOUSE— U.S. President Barack Obama says about one-half of American forces still in Afghanistan will leave the country by this time next year. The president made the announcement during his annual State of the Union address, which focused largely on the U.S. economy.
The president said 34,000 troops will come home from Afghanistan over the next year. That would put the United States on pace to have all its combat forces out by the end of 2014, as planned.
“This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he said.
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The president called for ongoing U.S. training of Afghan forces, and continued counterterrorism efforts worldwide, including a legal framework to guide those operations.
In his fifth annual address to Congress, and the first of his second term, Obama laid out his agenda for the coming year.
After his inaugural address last month emphasized social issues, the president used his State of the Union speech to refocus attention on his plan to boost the U.S. economy.
He called on both parties in Congress to support his proposals to help the middle class, create jobs and reduce the deficit.
“Nothing I am proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” he said.
In the Republican Party response, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, said Obama’s economic plan depends too heavily on government spending.
“And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more,” he said.
Those polled in a recent Pew Research Center public opinion survey listed the economy, jobs and the budget deficit as their top concerns.
On foreign policy, the president issued a warning to North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test early Tuesday.
“Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats,” Obama said.
Obama also said the U.S. and its allies will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
On Syria, the president pledged to keep the pressure up on the government there, but did not commit to military force.
He also announced that he will visit the Middle East in March, and promised continued support for Israel’s security and peace in the region.
On a key domestic issue, Obama asked lawmakers to speed passage of legislation to update U.S. immigration policy.
“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away, and America will be better for it. Let’s get it done,” he said.
Senator Rubio agreed on the need for immigration reform, but he called for stricter enforcement of existing laws.
“We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past, to secure our borders and enforce our laws,” Rubio said.
The president also appealed for passage of his gun control initiatives. He said that more than 1,000 people have died from guns in America since the killing of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut school in December.
He talked about one victim, a 15-year-old girl from Chicago named Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down days after marching in his inaugural parade.
“Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house,” Obama said.
Hadiya’s parents were among the shooting victims’ families who attended the speech.
Obama will make separate trips to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois this week to seek support for his agenda.
The annual address comes from a requirement in the U.S. Constitution that the president report to Congress “from time to time” on the state of the union.