President Barack Obama said Afghan forces will take over the lead security role for their country within a few months, sooner than planned, underscoring his resolve to extricate the U.S. from the 11-year war.
Obama described the accelerated transition at a White House news conference yesterday with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders met as the Obama administration considers options for how many support troops to keep in Afghanistan after 2014 -- from none to several thousand or more.
“Today we agreed that as Afghan forces take the lead and as President Karzai announces the final phase of the transition, coalition forces will move to a support role this spring,” Obama said, referring to 102,000 international coalition troops under U.S. command as of last month.
The U.S. hasn’t determined how the stepped-up timetable for Afghan-led security will affect the pace of withdrawing the 66,000 American combat troops now there. Obama stressed yesterday that any U.S. troops that might remain in training or support roles after 2014 must be granted immunity from Afghan prosecution or they won’t stay.
“Nowhere do we have any kind of security agreement with a country without immunity for our troops,” Obama said. “It will not be possible for us to have any kind of U.S. troop presence post-2014 without assurances” of such protection.
The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners have agreed to bring combat troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The U.S. and Afghanistan are in talks over how many American military personnel may stay in a supporting role, as well as how much aid will be provided.
Karzai was in Washington for meetings with Obama and other administration officials as the U.S. negotiates terms to wind down the longest war in U.S. history, a conflict that began a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has cost the lives of 2,165 American military personnel and $557 billion through fiscal 2012, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The Obama administration is seeking from Congress $9.7 billion in economic aid and $82 billion in war costs for the current fiscal year.
Over the next six months, U.S. troops will switch to training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. “It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty,” Obama said.
Karzai said the U.S. has agreed to “the complete return of detention centers and detainees to Afghan sovereignty” to take place soon after he returns to Kabul.
While Pentagon officials have proposed keeping some troops in Afghanistan for counterterrorism and training, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, said this week that the U.S. has the option of removing all its forces if differences between the two countries aren’t resolved.
All U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011 because of the failure to sign an agreement that would have granted American forces immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
Karzai said he’ll be better able to accommodate U.S. conditions now that major Afghan concerns about sovereignty, detentions and a continued international force presence in villages have been resolved.
“I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised, in a way that Afghan law will not be compromised,” he said.
In a speech last night at Georgetown University in Washington, Karzai thanked the U.S. government and “American taxpayers” for the investment in Afghan security and development over the past 11 years.
Acknowledging that the “cost has been immense” in money and lives lost by Americans and Afghans, Karzai said “it was for a great cause,” to defeat al-Qaeda and make the world a safer place.
Asked by a student from the campus veterans association who had twice served in Afghanistan what Karzai would say to the families of U.S. troops who perished there, the Afghan president said “the United States came to Afghanistan for the security of the United States and by extension, the rest of the world.”
Karzai listed the many advances made in Afghans’ quality of life -- including education, women’s rights and health care -- since the Taliban was ousted, and pushed back against negative international press coverage of the situation in his country.
“If I watched television in the United States or in Europe and then I judged Afghanistan from that perspective, it would be a disaster,” he said. He said that anyone in Afghanistan knows from “the traffic jams,” the “ringing telephones” and the “hustle and bustle of life” that there have been vast improvements in the economy and quality of life.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that no matter what decision is made about residual troop levels after U.S. combat forces are withdrawn, the White House is likely to support the government in Kabul with “nonmilitary means.”
“It’s my sense that we’re not just going to walk out of Afghanistan, that there will be a variety of programs,” Albright said. “Many people are concerned about what happens to the women’s issues” to ensure that any future government doesn’t roll back rights for women, who were badly oppressed under the Taliban regime ousted by the U.S. in 2001.
Karzai told his audience at Georgetown that he was certain that peace efforts will succeed between the government and insurgents, and that women’s rights -- including to an education and to work outside the home -- won’t be sacrificed even as members of the Taliban are reintegrated into Afghan society.