WHITE HOUSE— U.S. President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan have committed to transitioning foreign forces into an advise and support role in the coming months.
The two presidents spent about four hours holding bilateral talks that included Afghan and U.S. delegations, a working lunch and a joint news conference.
Just before they addressed reporters, a joint written statement reaffirmed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2012, which among other things commits the United States to a presence in Afghanistan until 2024.
Afghan national security
Afghan national security forces are to assume the operational lead for security later this year. U.S. forces now numbering 66,000 would pull back patrols from Afghan villages and end most unilateral combat operations.
International forces would officially move into a training, advising, and support role. After final NATO and Afghan approval, a final stage of transition would begin.
Obama said their meeting came at a "critical moment" and that while challenges remain, the agreements reached show the transition is on track.
"But let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be a historic moment, and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty, something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people," said Obama.
Obama will make specific decisions in the coming months regarding U.S. troop levels after 2014, based on recommendations from military commanders. He and Karzai downplayed the importance of troop numbers.
"Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It is the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region," said Karzai.
Obama said any post-2014 U.S. presence depends on resolving the question of immunity for U.S. forces. Karzai said once the issue is resolved in talks for a bilateral security agreement, he will argue to the Afghan people in favor of immunity.
Obama said both sides remain focused on ensuring that Afghan forces have the capacity to handle security, and on preventing "remnants of al-Qaida or other affiliates" from threatening the United States.
Asked about the huge costs of the war, the president recalled the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, saying everything U.S. forces have done over 11 years have been aimed at achieving a key objective.
"We achieved our central goal, which is - or have come very close to achieving our central goal - which is to incapacitate al-Qaida, to dismantle them, to make sure that they cannot attack us again," said Obama.
Continuing Taliban deliberations
Both leaders reiterated their commitment to ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, announcing they support the opening of an office in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate the process and involve other regional players, including Pakistan.
Obama said any reconciliation process will be impossible unless the Taliban renounce terrorism and recognize the Afghan Constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.
The two sides also agreed to place Afghan detainees under Afghan sovereignty and control, while the United States pledged to continue assisting the Afghan detention system.
The Afghan leader said his government continues the fight against corruption in his country, with some success. He said "corruption that is foreign in origin" is a problem that needs to be recognized.
Karzai said he looks forward to a well-organized, interference-free election in April 2014, saying he will be a "happily-retired president."