WASHINGTON // The US president, Barack Obama, and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said on Friday that they had agreed to speed up slightly the schedule for moving Afghanistan's security forces into the lead across the country, with US troops shifting fully to a support role.
"Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission - training, advising, assisting Afghan forces.
"It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty," Mr Obama said at a news conference after their meeting yesterday. The leaders also said that Mr Obama agreed to place battlefield detainees under the Afghan government's control.
The capabilities of the Afghan army are "exceeding initial expectations", the two said in a joint statement released after their private White House meeting and working lunch.
As a result, Mr Obama said he acceded to Mr Karzai's desire to put Afghan forces in the combat lead across his country this spring, rather than wait until summer.
The leaders said they had also discussed the possibility of a continued US troop presence beyond December 2014, when the US and allied combat mission is scheduled to end. But they did not settle on any specifics.
The US now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan. US commanders in Afghanistan have proposed keeping 6,000 to 15,000 US troops after 2014 to continuing pursuing terrorists and training Afghan security forces. But the White House, which tends to favour lower troop levels than the generals do, says Mr Obama would be open to pulling all US forces out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Mr Karzai said Friday that he would stand down at the end of his term in 2014, as foreseen by Afghan law, and allow a successor to be elected.
"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. And certainly I will be a retired president, and very happily a retired president," he said.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse