WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, eager to turn the page after more than a decade of war, said Friday that beginning this spring U.S. forces would play only a supporting role in Afghanistan, which opens the way for a more rapid withdrawal of the troops.
Though Obama said he had not yet decided on specific troop levels for the rest of the year, he said the United States would accelerate the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghans, which had been set to occur at the middle of the year, because of gains by Afghan forces.
Obama also made it clear that he planned to leave relatively few troops in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, saying those forces would be narrowly focused on advising and training Afghan troops and hunting down the remnants of al-Qaida.
“That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan," Obama said after a meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, at the White House.
It was the first face-to-face encounter of the leaders since May, and it underscored the quickening pace at which the United States is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan.
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 U.S. troops from Afghan villages this spring.
Brushing aside questions about residual U.S. 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."