WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Friday said he is moving up the deadline for Afghan forces to take the lead in securing their own country, a decision that could speed the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the coming months.
After a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House, Obama said American troops would turn over the responsibility this spring rather than in the middle of 2013, the previous target.
“What’s going to happen this spring is that Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country,” Obama said at a joint news conference with Karzai. “That doesn’t mean that coalition forces, including U.S. forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops ... in a training, assisting, advising role.”
Obama said he hasn’t “fully determined” what that means in terms of the pace of drawdown, but that he will make that decision after consultations with commanders on the ground. Obama has vowed to withdraw nearly all of the 66,000 U.S. troops in the country by the end of 2014.
Obama and Karzai spent much of the day of meetings and a working lunch discussing the strategy and role of a residual U.S. force after that date. Obama was not willing to discuss publicly the specific numbers of troops that may be left, although he described the post-2014 mission as “very limited” and focused on training and counter terrorism missions.
Standing next to his Afghan counterpart, Obama did not mince words regarding the conditions under which troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. They must have immunity from prosecution for doing their jobs, he said, drawing a clear line on an issue that is expected to be a sticking point in the final negotiations between the two countries.
Based on the progress toward their agreement, Karzai told the president that he would advocate for that immunity, aides to the Obama said.
The leaders indicated that other progress had been made in the meeting. They touted an agreement to open an office in Qatar as an incentive to the Taliban to restart peace negotiations that broke off last spring.
Obama repeated his vow to end -- swiftly and responsibly -- the war whose ending will likely be central to his foreign policy legacy. As he provided assurances that the U.S. has achieved or has “come very close to achieving” the chief goal of upending the Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, Obama also acknowledged how the hopes for a post-war Afghanistan have fallen.
“Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. You know, this is a human enterprise, and, you know, you fall short of the ideal,” Obama said, reflecting on the success of the overall mission.