US President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai agreed Friday that Afghan troops would take the lead for security in the country by the spring, with international forces moving into a supporting role, DPA reported.
The move comes ahead of the mid-2013 goal agreed at the NATO summit in Chicago last year as the leaders discussed the US role in Afghanistan, including troop levels, after the 2014 conclusion of the allied combat mission.
The two leaders also agreed to hand over control of detainees to Afghans and for the opening of a Taliban office in Doha to lead negotiations, in a move that could clear the way for other difficult issues to be resolved with the eye on a full bilateral agreement by year's end.
"I'll be going back to Afghanistan this evening to bring to the Afghan people the news of Afghanistan standing shoulder-to-shoulder with America as a sovereign, independent country but in cooperation and partnership," Karzai said.
Obama stressed that US forces in Afghanistan will shift to a very different role beyond the spring, even as danger remained and combat operations would still take place.
He stopped short of saying how many US troops might remain after 2014. He said he was still discussing those troop numbers with his military commanders.
Karzai said with the detainee issue decided, he could discuss the crucial issue of immunity for US troops with the Afghan people. He said the number of US troops left in the country was an issue for the United States to decide and declined to express preference for a set figure.
In a joint statement, the leaders said they discussed "the possibility of a post-2014 US presence" to support Afghan forces and keep pressure on the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Obama told reporters any role for the United States after 2014 would be a limited effort to assist the Afghan forces and fight any remaining remnants of al-Qaeda.
Speculation had swirled earlier in the week over the possibility of a complete withdrawal, after Obama's national security spokesman refused to "rule out any option" on post-2014 troop levels. Media reports this week have said the US was considering troop levels from between a few thousand to up to 20,000 soldiers.
Obama himself did not rule out that possibility, saying that in order for a troop presence to remain after NATO operations wind down in 2014, the issue of immunity for US soldiers must be agreed and Afghans must agree to the terms.
"If we have a follow-on force of any sort past 2014, it's got to be at the invitation of the Afghan government, and they have to feel comfortable with it," he said.
The US currently has 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, and NATO has an additional 30,000 according to recent estimates.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were also among those taking part in the talks at the White House Friday. The Afghan leader met Thursday with Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.
Panetta said after the talks that he and Karzai "believe very strongly" that the security transition plan adopted last year by NATO is working. "We are committed to finishing the job," the defence chief said.
Panetta declined to answer questions about troop levels after 2014, saying only that several options had been presented to the White House.