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Obama and Karzai say US Troop Withdrawals to Take Place in Spring

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After a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday, January 11th, President Obama said that US troops remaining in the region would transfer security matters to Afghan forces ahead of schedule and potentially accelerate a drawdown of US troops over the next two years.

In a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, the two leaders who have not seen eye to eye in the past, presented a united front, saying that Afghan forces were making enough progress to have significant authority handed over to them. While agreeing that the mission in Afghanistan had reached a turning point, President Obama said he placed hope in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban after more than a decade of brutal conflict.

‘‘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.” He added that the narrowly focused mission of remaining US troops would be working in conjunction with Afghan forces in hunting down the remnants of al-Qaeda. While not providing specifics about the final withdrawal date of the last 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan, Obama said that subsequent to consultations with US generals in the coming weeks, he will be making another announcement regarding this matter. For now, he said that it was “something that isn’t yet fully determined.” The options being considered by the White House range from none to up to 10,000 or more. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey said on Thursday, “It’ll depend on the conditions” 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?”

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. The United States has been eager 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 over the terms of a 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.

Critics of Obama’s plan for US troop withdrawals said the United States should carefully consider the consequences 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.

Obama’s signaling of deeper troop cuts to come appeared to run counter to the approach favored by General John R. Allen, the senior American commander in Afghanistan. Two American officials said in November that General Allen wanted to retain a significant military capacity through the fighting season that ends this fall. Other military experts raised concerns that the United States might forfeit some of its hard-won gains if it moved to shrink its forces in Afghanistan too quickly. James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the effort to train the Iraqi Army and a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, said that accelerating the effort to put Afghan forces in the lead, and the cuts in Americans troops that are expected to follow, posed risks. “There will be insufficient combat power to finish the counteroffensive against the Haqqani network in the east,” he said, referring to the militant group that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. General Dubik also said that the success of the effort to have Afghan forces lead this spring would depend on whether they continued to benefit from American and allied air power, logistical help and medical evacuations, as well as NATO advisers. Others who seek even a quicker troop pullout such as Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, an Afghan veteran who published a scathing assessment of US strategy last year queried, “What is it we are going to accomplish by fighting through the spring? What are we going to sacrifice American lives for that you couldn’t accomplish by transitioning to the Afghans next Wednesday?”

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. Karzai raised no public objections to troop cuts, saying he had obtained two important concessions from the United States: the transfer of prisons housing terrorism suspects to Afghan control, and the pullout of American troops from Afghan villages this spring. Not specifically addressing questions from the media about residual American troop levels, Karzai said, “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.” Karzai also said he would push to grant legal immunity to American troops left behind in Afghanistan — a guarantee that the United States failed to obtain from Iraq, leading Obama to withdraw all but a vestigial force from that country at the end of 2011.

Karzai — who took control of the country in the months after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks — said he will not run for reelection next year. Seeking to confirm this and allay fears that he might not yield power after Afghan elections, Karzai said in an address at Georgetown University later on Friday,. “In a year and few months from today, I will be a retired president.”

When asked about the plight of women in Afghanistan who could face renewed discrimination after any settlement with the Taliban, the diminishing American role in Afghanistan’s future was evident as Obama said the United States would speak up for the rights of Afghan women — rights that he noted were enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. But he said it was up to the Taliban to adhere to the Constitution and recognize that if they wanted to change how the Afghan government operates, they would have to do so in a lawful manner. “The president said several good things about the importance of women’s rights,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, “but very little about how the U.S. and Afghanistan will ensure that negotiations do not endanger them. President Karzai, for his part, said nothing.”

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