Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:31 PM
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he's accelerating the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the 66,000 U.S. forces moving this spring into a largely training and advisory role and Afghan troops taking the lead in fighting the Taliban-led insurgency.
Obama, addressing a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after several hours of talks, said the stepped-up pace of the pullout — details to come — was possible because Afghan forces "continue to grow stronger" through the U.S.-led training and equipping program.
U.S. troops will continue fighting alongside Afghan units when needed, but "their primary mission will be training, advising and assisting Afghan troops," Obama said. "It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty."
As of the end of September, according to a Pentagon report, Afghan security forces were in the lead in 85 percent of military operations. The transition of U.S. forces to a training and advisory role originally was to have taken place in early summer.
Obama's upbeat assessment contrasts with the much darker situation on the ground more than 11 years after the U.S.-led invasion. Taliban and other insurgent groups remain potent despite the recently ended 33,000-strong buildup of U.S. troops; Afghan forces are unable to operate without U.S. air and logistics support; and Karzai's government is hamstrung by intrigue, corruption and incompetence.
Moreover, the Taliban and other insurgents remain secure in sanctuaries in the border regions of neighboring Pakistan and they persist in rejecting peace talks with Karzai until all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
Obama, for whom Afghanistan was once a war of necessity, appears intent on ending America's longest war as soon as possible, driven by its growing unpopularity and pressures to rein in military spending.
He acknowledged that Afghanistan "is going to still be very dangerous. But what we've seen is, is that Afghan soldiers are stepping up at great risk to themselves."
The accelerated U.S. withdrawal sets the stage for the complete pullout of the U.S.-led NATO combat mission by the close of next year.
"What that translates into precisely in terms of how this drawdown of U.S. troops proceeds is something that isn't yet fully determined," Obama said.
He said he was receiving recommendations from U.S. commanders on the pace of the drawdown and on the size of a possible American force that would remain after 2014 to train Afghan troops and prevent al-Qaida from trying to re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan in which to plot attacks on the U.S. and allies.
Obama and Karzai, who on Friday was ending his first state visit to Washington, D.C., since 2010, spent much of their meeting ironing out differences and discussing the terms of a bilateral-security agreement that would govern the status of any U.S. force that remains in Afghanistan after 2014.
Karzai said he'd won Obama's agreement to hand over to Afghan custody "soon after my return to Afghanistan" some 600 high-value insurgent detainees whom the U.S. had declined to surrender last year when it turned over control of detention centers to Afghan officials.
Obama also agreed to Karzai's demand that U.S. forces abandon small rural outposts that he thinks stoke opposition to his government and its foreign backers and support for the insurgency.
Both steps are crucial to a new peace plan Karzai is pursuing that calls for releasing Taliban prisoners and effectively turning over to the insurgents their strongholds of eastern and southern Afghanistan as part of a political settlement to the war.
"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," Karzai said.
For his part, the Afghan president appeared to have accepted Obama's nonnegotiable demand that any U.S. force that remains in Afghanistan after 2014 is subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice but receives immunity from Afghan law.
"I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty would not be compromised," Karzai said.
The American commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, reportedly has presented options that call for keeping 6,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops in the country, though administration officials said this week for the first time that the administration might decide not to keep any American soldiers there.
Obama said he and Karzai hadn't decided on how many U.S. troops might remain, but he underscored that an American mission would be "very specific and very narrow": training and assisting Afghan forces, and attacking al-Qaida and its affiliates.
Obama said that after 10 years the U.S. had "come very close to achieving our central goal," which is to decapitate al-Qaida, "to dismantle them, to make sure that they can't attack us again."
But in its latest report on the war, the Pentagon said that despite progress in fighting Taliban-led extremists and the training of Afghan security forces, the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign "continued to face challenges, including a rise in insider attacks."
"The insurgency's safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan government and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan," it said. "The insurgents remain resilient and determined and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence through continued assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks and the emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)."
An Afghan reporter asked Obama what assurances he could give women in Afghanistan that they won't see their rights restricted by any peace settlement with the Taliban.
He replied that while the peace process has to be Afghan-led, the U.S. has made it clear that the Taliban have to recognize the Afghan Constitution and its protections for women.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Obama shake hands Friday after holding a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House.