US and other foreign troops in Afghanistan will turn over full responsibility for military operations to Afghan forces sometime this spring, a move that represents a modest acceleration from earlier plans – and which is aimed in part at painting a picture of progress in the 11-year-old war.
President Obama announced the imminent completion of the transition to full Afghan leadership in providing the country’s security at a joint White House press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Friday afternoon.
Mr. Obama did not state outright that the acceleration from NATO’s previous plans to turn over the lead in military operations by mid-2013 would mean a similar acceleration in the drawdown of the 66,000 US forces in Afghanistan. But he said progress in the capabilities of Afghan security forces means US troop levels will continue to fall “at a steady pace.”
“What we’ve seen is that the Afghan soldiers are stepping up,” Obama said, adding that this would allow US and other NATO forces to shift to a “training, assisting, and advising role.”
Mr. Karzai, who has been in Washington since Tuesday meeting with administration officials and congressional leaders, underscored successful outcomes on two priorities he had set for his US visit: Foreign troops will soon be largely out of Afghan villages – a sore spot for many rural Afghans – now that Afghans are taking the lead in military operations, and Afghan authorities will soon assume control of Afghan detainees and detention facilities.
Karzai said resolution of those two sensitive issues allows him to make the case to the Afghan people concerning the US conditions for keeping its forces in Afghanistan after NATO departs in 2014 – including full legal immunity from Afghan prosecution for US forces remaining in the country.
Obama gave no hint of the number of troops he is inclined to leave in Afghanistan after 2014, but he described their eventual mission in limited terms, saying any long-term American force would focus on two core goals: training Afghan forces, and carrying out counterterrorism operations aimed at “Al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
“That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan,” Obama said. Administration officials say a White House debate on any residual force in Afghanistan has shifted over recent weeks toward the lower end of a range of between 2,500 and 10,000 troops – already lower than the 6,000-to-20,000 range the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, has proposed.
The lowest White House numbers are also well below the size of a US force that Karzai was expecting to see remain in his country, according to former US diplomats and military officials who have recently been to Afghanistan.
The two leaders did not mention Pakistan in a joint statement they issued. But the statement, in a section on the “regional environment,” underscored “the important role of the region in supporting Afghanistan’s progress toward stability and prosperity.” In that phrase, “the region” is largely a stand-in for Pakistan, which allows its territory along the Afghan border to provide refuge to both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda leadership – and which both countries see as key to Afghanistan’s prospects for emerging from a decade of conflict.
Beyond that, the US is acknowledging that it has its sights set on Pakistan when it says that one of the two objectives of a residual US force in Afghanistan would be to keep up the fight against Al Qaeda, since Al Qaeda is across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Karzai’s visit coincided with a sharp uptick in US drone strikes on militant targets in Pakistan.
At the press conference, Obama did address the existence of “safe havens” for terrorists in Pakistan, noting that everyone, including the Pakistanis, have an interest in “reducing extremism in the border areas.”
Asserting that Afghanistan and Pakistan face common challenges and, as neighbors, a common future, Obama said it is “very hard to imagine stability and peace in the region if Pakistan and Afghanistan don’t come to some basic agreement and understanding about the threat of extremism to both countries and both governments and both capitals.”