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January 11, 2013

US Troops to Hand Over Lead Fighting Role to Afghans

by Meredith Buel

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai said Friday American troops will hand the lead role in fighting the Taliban to Afghan forces in the next few months. The remarks followed a meeting of the two leaders at the White House.

Obama said American troops in Afghanistan will move to a supporting role several months earlier than expected.

“Our troops will have a different mission, training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be an historic moment,” said Obama.

Karzai said after the handover, Afghan forces will be fully responsible for security.

“International forces, the American forces, will be no longer present in Afghan villages, that the task will be that of the Afghan forces to provide for the Afghan people security and protection,” said Karzai.

The comments came several days after a senior Obama administration official suggested the U.S. may pull out all of its  troops by the end of 2014.

Some analysts argue such a move would jeopardize the gains made during more than a decade of war.

“To keep a zero option will undermine what has been accomplished in Afghanistan," said former Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Said Jawad.

Analysts say even in two years, Afghan security forces will not be ready to battle the Taliban without U.S. helicopters, medical facilities, intelligence and other critical support.

“This is going to be absolutely critical. Having air support is a morale builder, particularly for ground troops knowing that they can get out of a tight situation because they can call in air support,” said Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute.

Earlier, Karzai was welcomed at the Pentagon in an elaborate ceremony. He thanked Americans and NATO allies for their sacrifices.

The U.S. hopes the Taliban will reconcile with the Afghan government, although virtually no progress has been made.

“It is going to be hard enough to ultimately, if they ever get to that point, agree really to compromise on the substance of things. But right now even the framework for an agreement is just not in sight,” said Weinbaum.

Keeping forces after 2014 will require an agreement on the role of U.S. troops including legal immunity for them.

Senior military officials have called for a strong force, expressing concern that a rapid disengagement could cause Afghanistan’s security forces to crumble.

While progress has been made to prevent insurgents from regaining territory, violence persists.

“Unfortunately we already see actually in some parts of Afghanistan continued presence of Taliban and relatively sustained activities of al-Qaida in eastern Afghanistan already,” said Jawad.

As Karzai wrapped up his visit, it appeared the sun already is setting on America’s long and costly war in Afghanistan.