WASHINGTON – President Obama said Friday that US troops would hand over security control to Afghan forces sooner than previously announced and he placed new hope in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban after more than a decade of war.
In a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the East Room of the White House, the presidents of two nations linked by war said the mission in Afghanistan was reaching a turning point. The two leaders, who have clashed in the past, presented a common front in saying that Afghan forces were making enough progress to transfer more authority to them—and potentially accelerate a drawdown of US troops over the next two years.
‘‘Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission: training, advising and assisting Afghan forces,’’ Obama said. ‘‘It will be a historic moment.’’
Still, Obama did not provide details about when the last of 66,000 American troops would leave Afghanistan, saying it was “something that isn’t yet fully determined” and that he would have another announcement after consulting with US generals in the coming months.
The United States has been anxious to support a negotiated settlement with Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, after more than a year of fits and starts, the Taliban closed off a diplomatic channel to Washington last March.
A major sticking point had been the terms over a proposed prisoner exchange involving members of the Taliban being held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner my militants in Pakistan since 2009.
The meeting between Obama and Karzai was their first since Obama was reelected in November, and it comes amid a reshuffling of the White House’s national security team. Senator John Kerry, who has been nominated as Secretary of State, has extensive experience with the Afghan leader. He is also likely to favor a quick drawdown of US troops.
Karzai said the United States was turning over control of detention centers and detainees to Afghanistan’s control, which had been one sticking point.
The US also reaffirmed that it does not seek to have permanent bases in Afghanistan, and Karzai outlined plans for democratic elections in 2014. Karzai – who took control of the country in the months after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks—said he will not run for reelection.
The United States currently has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from 90,000 last year.
The current strategy, agreed to in May 2012 by the United States, Afghanistan, and NATO countries also participating in the International Security Assistance Force, is to wind down the foreign military presence by the end of 2014.
That plan, however, hinges on the ability of newly trained Afghan security forces to take over the fight against Taliban insurgents, who are still attacking the government from strongholds in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
In a joint statement, Obama and Karzai said that Afghan forces now lead about 80 percent of the country’s security operations. By February, after another round of transfers, the Afghanistan forces will have the lead in securing nearly 90 percent of the country’s population.
The plan “is working, and we’re fully committed to finishing the job,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Top officials in Washington and Kabul have yet to determine how many US forces—such as special forces and security personnel—might stay behind in Afghanistan after 2014 to train and support the Afghans.
The options being considered by the White House range from none to up to 10,000 or more.
“It’ll depend on the conditions,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday, adding the size of the remaining force will rely heavily on recommendations from commanders on the ground, both American and Afghan.
“We react to requests to this—a certain set of parameters,” Dempsey said. “What’s the mission? What’s the requirement to protect the force while it’s accomplishing that mission? Over what period of time?”
Obama said that if troops are left behind, they would need to be granted legal immunity, something that Karzai said he would seek approval for in Afghanistan.
As of Friday, 2,174 US troops have died in Afghanistan since US forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for providing a safe haven to Al Qaeda terrorists that attacked the United States.
Obama on Friday said US forces are now on the path to concluding their mission.
“We achieved our central goal, which is—or have come very close to achieving our central goal—which is to de-capacitate al Qaeda; to dismantle them; to make sure that they can’t attack us again,” he said. “And 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.”
Still, not everyone is buying the largely rosy outlook on display at the White House.
“What is it we are going to accomplish by fighting through the spring?” asked Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, an Afghan veteran who published a scathing assessment of US strategy last year. “What are we going to sacrifice American lives for that you couldn’t accomplish by transitioning [to the Afghans] next Wednesday?”
Davis is particularly wary of the claims of progress based on how much territory the Afghan forces are now responsible for.
“It is being portrayed as evidence of success,” he said in an interview. “It is just an arbitrary designation. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of their capability.”
For example, he believes without helicopters and other logistics support Afghan forces will not be able to hold contested territory on their own.
“That is what is going to make them sustainable.”