President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a press conference today that they are accelerating the process of the transition in Afghanistan. Obama said that beginning this spring, U.S. troops would “move to a support role.””Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission,” Obama said. “Training, advising, assisting Afghan forces.” He later added that the focus would be on “targeted counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”
Currently, roughly 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. In meetings on Friday, the two leaders discussed various plans to continue the transition in Afghanistan, as well as the size of a potential residual force that could remain in the country after the official end of the war.
The Obama-Karzai meeting is the pair’s first since Obama’s re-election in November. It also comes amid a shakeup in Obama’s second-term defence team, as Obama has announced nominees to fill the Secretary of defence, Secretary of State and CIA Director positions.
Two of those nominees — former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defence and Sen. John Kerry for state — could push for a faster withdrawal than what has been on the table.
“By the end of next year — 2014 — the transition will be complete,” Obama said. “This war will come to a responsible end.”
Obama said did not provide specific troop levels he was looking for in a residual force. He also added the important caveat that if U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, they must have immunity. It’s something he said Karzai understood, but no agreement has been reached.
As far as troop levels, Karzai said that “numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan.” He emphasised that the broader relationship between the U.S. would be more important.
Obama also said that he and Karzai supported “the opening of a Taliban office to facilitate talks” between the two governments. But he warned that it was not possible to reconcile with the Taliban if the group did not renounce terrorism.
On the overall mission, Obama said the U.S. has “achieved our central goal – or come very close to achieving our goal – of decapacitating al-Qaeda.” Later in answering the question, he contradicted himself and said “we are in the process of achieving that goal.”
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