President Obama said Friday Afghan forces would take the lead for security in the country by this spring — slightly ahead of schedule — but gave no clear indication how many U.S. troops would remain in the country beyond next year, following a summit meeting at the White House with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The two leaders say the Afghan forces are “exceeding initial expectations” and will be in the leading combat role in the country this spring, instead of this summer as originally planned.
Whether any residual U.S. forces will be left behind in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama told reporters after the meeting, will depend critically on whether there is an immunity agreement for American troops with the Afghan government, as is the case with U.S. military deployments around the world.
“It’s our hope we can reach an agreement this year,” Mr. Obama said, appearing in the East Room of the White House with Mr. Karzai at his side, but he added that troops cannot remain without Afghanistan agreeing to give U.S. forces immunity from prosecution.
“Nowhere do we have a troop presence without immunity for our troops,” Mr. Obama said. “… It will not be possible without immunity.”
Senior administration officials earlier this week said they were not ruling out the possibility that all U.S. troops could be out of Afghanistan by 2014.
“We wouldn’t rule out that option,” Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, told reporters during a conference call. “We’re not guided by the goal of a certain number of U.S. troops in the country. We’re guided by the objectives that the president set — disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda.”
The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan. U.S. commanders have proposed keeping 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops after 2014 to continue to train Afghan security forces and hunt down terrorists, but the White House has generally favored lower troop levels than the generals have.
Mr. Karzai also declined to speculate on whether such an agreement would be reached or on the size of a contingency force he’d like to see left behind.
But he did not categorically rule out the prospect that a status-of-forces agreement offering U.S. troops immunity to stay could be worked out.
As Afghan forces take responsibility for the security of their country, Mr. Obama made clear that and coalition forces would move to a support role this spring.
“Starting this spring — our troops will have a different mission … training, advising and assisting Afghan forces,” he said. “It will be a historic moment and another step to Afghan sovereignty.”
The president said he and Mr. Karzai will continue to work towards a security agreement that will detail final troop levels beyond next year. Remaining U.S. troops will be focused on training and assisting Afghan forces, along with targeted terrorism missions against al Qaeda and its allies.
“It’s our hope we can reach an agreement this year,” Mr. Obama said.