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.
"Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan," he said. "It's the relationship that will make a difference in Afghanistan."
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.
Mr. Karzai said he and Mr. Obama had agreed on the complete return of detainees to Afghan control and hailed improvements in the country's security.
"During our conversations, I thanked the president for the help the U.S. have given to the Afghan people for all that we have gained for the past 10 years," he said. "And those gains will be kept … as well as the respect for the Afghan Constitution."
The end of the war, which has spanned more than a decade, is fueling uncertainty in the country about whether the Afghan government can hold off the Taliban after international forces leave and preserve some of the democratic gains it has achieved, including greater rights for women.
Mr. Obama said the Afghan constitution protects the rights of Afghan women, calling that achievement "part of the legacy of the last 10 years."
"We will continue to voice very strongly support for the Afghan constitution, its protection of minorities, its protection of women. And we think that a failure to provide that protection not only will make reconciliation impossible to achieve, but also would make Afghanistan's long-term development impossible to achieve."
Also in question is whether the Afghan government can root out rampant corruption and build credibility with the citizens it serves.
"There is corruption of Afghan government that we are fighting against, employing various means and methods," Mr. Karzai said. "But if your question is whether we are satisfied, of course not."
Mr. Karzai blamed some of the corruption on foreign elements and said international leaders need to acknowledge and commit to correct some of the problems with how money is flowing in and out of the country.
He also committed to "happily" retire after next year's election.
"For me, the greatest of my achievements eventually seen by the Afghan people will be the proper, well-organized, interference-free election in which the Afghan people can elect their next president," he said.
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