Obama, Karzai announce reduced role for US military in Afghanistan

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday announced that the U.S. military would begin a scaled-back role in Afghanistan in mid-2013, sooner than initially projected.

{mosads}“Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission — training, advising and assisting Afghan forces,” Obama said in a joint press conference with Karzai in the East Room of the White House.

“By the end of next year — 2014 — the transition will be complete,” he continued. “This war will come to a responsible end.”

Obama said he’d be taking recommendations from commanders on the ground to determine how many — or if any — troops would stay in the country after 2014. In a statement released just moments before the press conference, the White House said the two governments hoped to soon finalize an agreement on residual U.S. troops.

Obama and Karzai met privately in the Oval Office earlier in the day, where the two “discussed the possibility of a post-2014 U.S. presence that is sustainable, that supports a capable and effective Afghan National Security Force, and that continues to pressure the remnants of al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” according to a statement from the White House, which said the “scope and nature” would be hammered out in a Bilateral Security Agreement “as soon as possible.”

At the press conference Friday, Obama said he would announce the next phase of the drawdown in “coming months.”

The White House and Afghan lawmakers have publicly clashed recently over a planned U.S. troop drawdown in 2014, when NATO troops will hand off security to the Afghan forces.

Some Obama administration officials raised the possibility that no U.S. troops could remain in the country after 2014. But there are questions about how prepared the Afghan troops and police will be to operate on their own. The comments provoked rebukes from some Afghan lawmakers, who argue a complete U.S. withdrawal would lead to a Taliban takeover and civil war.

The White House in its statement touted “recent improvements in Afghanistan’s security environment,” saying it was “exceeding initial expectations.”

“Afghan forces have continued to get stronger,” Obama said during the press conference. “Most missions are already being led by Afghan forces … the vast majority are Afghans who are fighting and dying for their country every day … what we’ve seen is that Afghan soldiers are stepping up at great risk to themselves. That allows us to make this transition to the spring.”

There are 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Obama and Karzai signed an agreement last year that could allow the U.S. to maintain an unspecified number of troops in the country for special operations and training purposes through 2024.

Karzai looked to diminish the importance of maintaining a U.S. presence in his country, saying the “numbers aren’t going to make a difference in the situation in Afghanistan,” but rather emphasized the overall strategic relationship between the two countries.

Neither side expected the issue to be resolved during Karzai’s trip to Washington. In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the two sides were merely hopeful to “reach a common understanding of how we can achieve mutual objectives for the post-2014 relationship.”

After their private meeting, Obama and Karzai were joined by Vice President Biden and members of Karzai’s delegation for a bilateral meeting in the Cabinet Room. On Thursday, Karzai met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom will soon be leaving their posts in Obama’s cabinet.

The presidents also discussed the 2014 Afghan elections, the economic transition and the regional environment.

Obama and Karzai’s relationship has at times been strained, with the White House alleging corruption within the Afghan government, and the Afghanis fuming over civilian deaths linked to the U.S. military.

Karzai will address Georgetown University on Friday afternoon in a speech on U.S.-Afghan relations.

–This report was originally published at 1:27 p.m. and last updated at 2:24 p.m.

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