Speaking at the White House, Obama said Afghan forces would take the lead in securing the country this spring, several months ahead of what had been planned at a NATO summit last year.
Karzai also clarified his intention to eliminate a key obstacle to preserving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, pledging to “go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.” Obama’s inability to reach an immunity agreement, which protects U.S. forces from foreign prosecution, prevented him from keeping any troops in Iraq.
Although Obama did not say explicitly that the accelerated transition would allow him to more quickly pull the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he made clear that the “nature of our work” in the country after nearly a dozen years of war would soon change.
“We achieved our central goal, or have come very close to achieving our central goal, which is to de-capacitate al-Qaeda, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can’t attack us again,” Obama said. “At the end of this conflict, we are going to be able to say that the sacrifices that were made by those men and women in uniform has brought about the goal that we sought.”
The faster shift to a mostly advisory and training role will likely energize those within the White House, particularly among Obama’s civilian advisers, who have argued for a faster drawdown than some generals have recommended.
Obama will soon receive from Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a recommended schedule for troop reductions over the next two years. The U.S. president’s meetings with Karzai came as he prepares to set the final withdrawal timeline in the coming weeks and to discuss with the Afghan leader how he intends to do so.
Obama has ranked ending the war in Iraq and winding down the even-longer conflict in Afghanistan as key foreign policy achievements during his first term. Senior administration officials say bringing the war to a “responsible end,” as Obama said several times on Friday, is a top priority as he begins his second term.
His recent selection of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam veteran, as defense secretary underscores Obama’s intention to focus less on fighting new battles in Afghanistan than on bringing home and caring for U.S. troops, many of whom have served several tours.
Asked Friday whether the human and financial cost of the Afghanistan war had been worth it, Obama recalled the 3,000 Americans who were “viciously murdered” by al-Qaeda, as well as the Afghans who were “brutalized” by the Taliban that controlled the country at the time.