US President Barack Obama on Friday said coalition forces will hand over lead security role to Afghanistan troops starting this spring and switch to training and advising.
But their combat mission will not end yet. Only the Afghan forces will take the lead role before assuming complete responsibility after 2014.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission — training, advising, assisting Afghan forces,” Obama said at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.”
The US has roughly 66,000 troops in Afghanistan now, most of whom will be back home by the end of 2014, according to a pre-determined timetable.
Will the spring switch speed up the drawdown? The president said he has not yet determined its course and that he was still considering options from ground commanders.
According to a timetable agreed upon by Nato countries at a meeting in Chicago last year, coalition forces will yield lead security role to Afghan forces in in 2013 and assume full responsibility from 2014.
Remaining US forces would only be there to train and advise Afghans and carry out operations to prevent the return of al Qaeda or its affiliates.
The size of this residual force is the subject of much speculation, with some White House aides indicating this week the US might want to pull out completely by 2015. It might be around 2,500, according to more realistic estimates. Obama said the number would be much smaller than the US “footprint” over the last 10 years.
But he did make clear any US presence will have to be at the invitation of the Afghans, who, he didn’t specify, will have to grant immunity to US troops from local laws.
The US pulled out its troops completely from Iraq two years ago because of the failure of the two governments to agree on an immunity clause.
“With those issues resolved,” Karzai said, “I can go to my people and argue for immunity for US troops in Afghanistan.”