WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that US troops would hand over security control to Afghan forces sooner than previously announced and he placed new hope in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban after more than a decade of war.
In a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the East Room of the White House, the presidents of two nations linked by war said the mission in Afghanistan was reaching a turning point. The two leaders, who have clashed in the past, presented a common front in saying that Afghan forces were making enough progress to transfer more authority to them — and potentially accelerate a drawdown of US troops over the next two years.
‘‘Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces,’’ Obama said, adding that US troops would be involved in combat under direction of Afghanistan commanders. “It will be a historic moment.’’
Still, Obama did not provide details about when the last of 66,000 American troops would leave Afghanistan, saying that it was “something that isn’t yet fully determined” and that he would have another announcement after consulting with US generals in the coming weeks.
The meeting between Obama and Karzai was their first since Obama was reelected in November, and it comes amid a reshuffling of the White House’s national security team. Senator John Kerry, who has been nominated as Secretary of State, has extensive experience with the Afghan leader.
In addition to taking over greater control of combat operations, Karzai said the United States would also “soon” be turning over control of detention centers and detainees to Afghanistan, which had been one sticking point.
The United States also reaffirmed that it does not seek to have permanent bases in Afghanistan, and Karzai outlined plans for democratic elections in 2014. Karzai — who took control of the country in the months after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks — said he will not run for reelection.
The United States has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from 90,000 last year and a peak of about 100,000 in spring 2011. The current strategy, agreed to in May 2012 by the United States, Afghanistan, and NATO countries also participating in the International Security Assistance Force, is to wind down the foreign military presence by the end of 2014.
That plan, however, hinges on the ability of newly trained Afghan security forces to take over the fight against Taliban insurgents, who are still attacking the government from strongholds in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
In a joint statement, Obama and Karzai said that Afghan forces now lead about 80 percent of the country’s security operations. By February, after another round of transfers, the Afghanistan forces will have the lead in securing nearly 90 percent of the country’s population. The plan “is working, and we’re fully committed to finishing the job,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday.
Critics said the United States should be wary of transferring control too quickly to an Afghan military that has limited resources and to a government that even Karzai conceded on Friday was still struggling with corruption. A six-month Pentagon assessment released last month found that even while Afghanistan is taking the lead in routine patrols, only one out of the Afghan Army’s 23 brigades was able to operate without US or NATO support.
Others want a quicker pullout. “What is it we are going to accomplish by fighting through the spring?” asked Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, an Afghan veteran who published a scathing assessment of US strategy last year. “What are we going to sacrifice American lives for that you couldn’t accomplish by transitioning [to the Afghans] next Wednesday?”
Although more control is being handed over to Afghanistan, Obama warned on Friday that US troops would still be engaged in battle, just with Afghan commanders in charge.
Top officials in Washington and Kabul have yet to determine how many US forces might stay behind in Afghanistan after 2014 to train and support the Afghans. The options being considered by the White House range from none to up to 10,000 or more.
“It’ll depend on the conditions,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday, adding the size of the remaining force will rely heavily on recommendations from commanders on the ground, both American and Afghan.
“We react to requests to this — a certain set of parameters,” Dempsey said. “What’s the mission? What’s the requirement to protect the force while it’s accomplishing that mission? Over what period of time?”
Obama said that if troops are left behind, they would need to be granted legal immunity, something that Karzai said he would seek approval for in Afghanistan. Such immunity is standard practice when American troops are deployed overseas, preventing US forces from being prosecuted under local laws. Obama pulled forces out of Iraq in 2011, earlier than planned, because that country’s Parliament would not grant them immunity.
The United States has been anxious to support a negotiated settlement with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, after more than a year of fits and starts, the Taliban closed off a diplomatic channel to Washington in March. A major sticking point had been overthe terms ofa proposed prisoner exchange involving members of the Taliban being held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by militants in Pakistan since 2009.
“We recommitted our nations to a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” Obama said. “President Karzai updated me on the Afghan government’s road map to peace. And today, we agreed that this process should be advanced by the opening of a Taliban office to facilitate talks.”
Karzai said he and Obama agreed to allow the Taliban to open an office in Doha, where direct talks would take place with officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As of Friday, 2,174 US troops have died in Afghanistan since US forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for providing a safe haven to Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States, according to icasualties.org, which compiles Pentagon statistics and public reports.
On Friday, Obama said US forces are now on the path to concluding their mission.
“We achieved our central goal, which is — 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,” he said. “And 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 president added, however: “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal.”