WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed yesterday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country and underscoring Obama’s determination to wind down a long, unpopular war.
Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in talks at the White House on U.S. demands for immunity from prosecution for any American troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.
Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents, endorsing the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.
Outwardly, at least, the meeting appeared to be something of a success for both men, who need to show their vastly different publics they are making progress in their goals for Afghanistan. There were no signs of the friction that has frequently marked Obama’s relations with Karzai.
Karzai’s visit came amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of 2014.
“By the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete,” Obama said at a news conference with Karzai standing at his side. “Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end.”
The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops – far fewer than some U.S. commanders propose – to conduct counterterrorism operations and to train and assist Afghan forces.