US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces this year, underscoring Obama’s determination to move decisively to wind down the long, unpopular war.
Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in White House talks on US demands for immunity from prosecution for any US troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.
Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents. They each voiced support for the establishment of a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.
Karzai’s visit, which follows a year of growing strains in US-Afghan ties, comes amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the US military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of next year.
The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations while providing training and assistance for Afghan forces.
However, a top Obama aide said this week that the administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal after 2014.
Saying that Afghan forces were being trained and were “stepping up” faster than expected, Obama said Afghan troops would take over the lead in combat missions across the country this spring, rather than waiting until the summer, as was originally planned.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces,” Obama said.
“It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty,” he added.
There are about 66,000 US troops currently in Afghanistan. NATO allies have also been steadily reducing their troop numbers there with the aim of ending the foreign combat role in 2014, despite doubts about the ability of Afghan forces to shoulder full responsibility for security.
Obama said final decisions on this year’s troop reductions and the post-2014 US military role were still months away, but his comments raised the prospects of an accelerated withdrawal timetable as the security transition proceeds.
Precisely how much of an acceleration was unclear.
For his part, Karzai voiced satisfaction over Obama’s agreement to turn over control of detention centers to Afghan authorities, a source of dispute between their countries.