WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama moved Friday toward a faster reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and laid the groundwork with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a small troop presence in the country after the American mission formally ends there in 2014.
Obama and Karzai, leaders who have often been at odds in recent years, brought into sharper focus America’s endgame for its longest war. Appearing after a series of morning meetings, the two outlined steps to wind down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan over the next two years, a show of unity that excluded any talk of new ambitions.
Speaking at the White House, Obama said Afghan forces would take the lead in securing the country this spring, several months ahead of what had been planned at a NATO summit last year.
Although it’s not widely recognized in the U.S., American forces have greatly scaled back their combat role already. In a joint statement, Obama and Karzai said Afghan forces now lead more than 80 percent of combat operations, and by next month they will be in the lead in security for nearly 90 percent of the Afghan population.
The two leaders also agreed that the Afghan government would be given full control of detention centers and detainees. Karzai also clarified his intention to eliminate a key obstacle to preserving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, pledging to “go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.” Obama’s inability to reach an immunity agreement, which protects U.S. forces from foreign prosecution, prevented him from keeping any troops in Iraq.
Immunity is a U.S. demand that the Afghans have resisted, saying they want assurances on other things — like authority over detainees — first.
Although Obama did not say explicitly that the accelerated transition would allow him to more quickly pull the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he made clear that the “nature of our work” in the country after nearly a dozen years of war would soon change.
“We achieved our central goal, or have come very close to achieving our central goal, which is to de-capacitate al-Qaida, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can’t attack us again,” Obama said. “At the end of this conflict, we are going to be able to say that the sacrifices that were made by those men and women in uniform has brought about the goal that we sought.”
The faster shift to a mostly advisory and training role will likely energize those within the White House, particularly among Obama’s civilian advisers, who have argued for a faster drawdown than some generals have recommended.
Obama will soon receive from Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a recommended schedule for troop reductions over the next two years. The president’s meetings with Karzai came as he prepares to set the final withdrawal timeline in the coming weeks and to discuss with the Afghan leader how he intends to do so.
Obama said any U.S. mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014 would focus solely on counterterrorism operations and training Afghan security forces, whose progress he described optimistically Friday.
Obama would not specify how many troops he may leave in Afghanistan to accomplish those tasks, but he said it will be “a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan.”
Afghan forces have taken the lead in security operations in most of the country already, but Obama’s emphasis on the faster transition Friday suggested that he intends to use the shift to withdraw forces on an accelerated timeline. He called the spring transfer of responsibilities “a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.”