President Obama moved Friday toward a faster reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and laid the groundwork with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a small troop presence in the country after the American mission formally ends there in 2014.
Obama and Karzai, leaders who have often been at odds in recent years, brought into sharper focus the American endgame for its longest war. Appearing after a series of morning meetings, the two outlined steps to wind down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan over the next two years, a show of unity that excluded any talk of new ambitions.
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.
“Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not,” Obama said. “ This is a human enterprise, and, you know, you fall short of the ideal.”
But, he continued, “Have we been able, I think, to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that goal.”
Obama said any U.S. mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014 would focus solely on counterterrorism operations and training Afghan security forces, whose progress he described optimistically on Friday.
Obama would not specify how many troops he may leave in Afghanistan to accomplish those tasks, but he said it will be “a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan.”
Within the White House, some officials are pushing to keep a force as small as 2,500 past 2014, far lower than the 10,000 to 30,000 that some U.S. officials and NATO allies were discussing as recently as a year ago. And Obama’s positive public assessment Friday will likely make it far more difficult for military officials to make the case for a more gradual drawdown than the White House wants.
Afghan forces have taken the lead in security operations in most of the country already, but Obama’s emphasis on the faster transition Friday suggested that he intends to use the shift to withdraw forces on an accelerated timeline. He called the spring transfer of responsibilities “a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.”
Karzai has complained frequently that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan threatens his country's independence, often drawing the anger of Obama and his senior advisers in doing so.
But unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has few natural resources and little national wealth, giving Karzai a greater incentive to push for an immunity agreement that would help keep U.S. troops and assistance in his country after 2014. On Friday, Karzai cited Turkey and Germany — two NATO countries that host large U.S. military bases — as possible post-war models for the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
Obama and Karzai hope to have the security agreement, including the immunity guarantee, finalized by November. That would help formalize the U.S. presence in Afghanistan before that country’s next presidential election, expected in the spring of 2014. The issue of American troops could become a feature of that campaign and complicate security negotiations if they have not concluded by then.
Asked on Friday how many U.S. forces should remain after 2014, Karzai said that is “an issue for the United States,” suggesting he would not negotiate vigorously over the number Obama settles on.
“Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan,” Karzai said. “The broader relationship will make a difference in Afghanistan and the region.”
Karzai and Obama said they had discussed the Afghan president’s efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban, a process the White House refers to as “reconciliation.” The leaders agreed on allowing the Taliban to open an office in Qatar, where Karzai said direct peace talks with Afghan government negotiators will be held.
But Obama noted several times that the war is incomplete — both on the battlefield and in building a stable country.
As U.S. forces leave, Obama emphasized that he expects Afghan leaders to protect the rights of women to participate in public life in a Muslim nation where many are still forced to wear restrictive burqas and have limited avenues to education and jobs.
“The single-best indicator, or one of the single-best indicators, of a country’s prosperity around the world is how does it treat its women,” he said. “Does it educate that half of the population? Does it give them opportunity? When it does, you unleash the power of everyone, not just some.”