Local forces will take the lead for all security operations in Afghanistan by the middle of 2013, clearing the way for a new mission for American forces, said President Barack Obama on Friday while speaking at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Coalition troops will solely focus on the longer-term tasks of training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces by spring of this year, Obama said Friday afternoon in the East Room of the White House, as well as continuing counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Obama also announced new agreements with the Afghan government to address relations with the Taliban and oversight of detention facilities.
The president fell short of addressing specifics on drawing down the troops prior to the 2014 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations, or how many troops will remain in the country after that time, but stressed the U.S. has achieved its goals in Afghanistan.
"Our path is clear and we are moving forward," Obama said. "Every day, more Afghans are stepping up and taking more responsibility for their security. As they do, our troops will come home."
The two leaders announced the formation of a Taliban office to be based in Doha, Qatar, to serve as an interlocutor between the former ruling power in Afghanistan – labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. – and the new Afghan government. Karzai also announced that detention centers will move to Afghan control.
"We have made progress on some of the important issues for Afghanistan concerning Afghan sovereignty," Karzai said. "We agreed on the complete return of detention centers and detainees to Afghan sovereignty. This will be implemented soon after my return to Afghanistan."
Karzai reaffirmed his commitment to step down from the presidency following elections next year which, if successful, will be one of the most important parts of his legacy, he said.
"For me, the greatest of my achievements, eventually, seen by the Afghan people, will be a proper, well-organized, interference-free election in which the Afghan people can elect their next president," he said. "I certainly will be a retired president and, very happily, a retired president."
The two leaders also addressed rampant corruption in the country, which Karzai blames partially on outside interference.
The Afghans are employing "various means and methods" to fight corruption in the country and in the government, Karzai said, and "have succeeded in certain ways."
President Obama admitted the U.S. may not achieve all of the goals it set out to do following almost 12 years of fighting, but declared coalition troops will accomplish their mission.
"We went into Afghanistan because 3,000 Americans were viciously murdered by a terrorist organization that was operating openly and at the invitation of those who were then ruling Afghanistan," he said. "It was absolutely the right thing to go after that organization, to go after the host government that aided and abetted -- or at least allowed those attacks to take place."
America has achieved, or come close to achieving, its "central goal" in Afghanistan of dismantling al Qaeda to ensure it cannot attack the U.S. again, Obama said.
The U.S. has not achieved "everything some might have imagined us achieving in the best scenarios," Obama said. "There's a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal."
"Did we achieve our central goal, and have we been able to shape a strong relationship with an Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that," he said.