by David Jackson and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Friday that they have agreed to slightly speed up plans for moving Afghan forces into the security lead.
The two leaders say the Afghan army is "exceeding initial expectations" and the Afghan forces will be put in the combat lead across Afghanistan this spring, rather than wait until summer as was initially planned.
"Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission-training, advising and assisting Afghan forces," Obama said at an afternoon news conference.
Obama said it was not certain what it would mean for the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals this year. He said that was "something that isn't yet fully determined." He also cautioned that while U.S. troops will fall back into primarily a support, American forces will still likely see combat.
Afghans now lead about 80% of operations and by February are expected to have a lead in securing 90% of the Afghan population, according to a joint statement issued by Obama and Karzai.
The most important item on the two leaders' agenda were talks on whether the United States will have a residual presence in the country beyond 2014, when the U.S. and its allies are scheduled to end combat operations.
Some U.S. commanders have proposed fewer than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, to keep battling terrorists and training Afghan forces.
Karzai declined to spell out the size of a contingency force he'd like to see left behind.
"Number are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan," Karzai said."It's the relationship that will make a difference in Afghanistan."
Some Obama aides want a much smaller U.S. presence. Senior administration officials even said earlier this week it's possible that no residual force will be left behind in Afghanistan. Obama said on Friday he's yet to make a decision on the matter, but that he will require that any potential residual U.S. force left behind will have immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.
"We wouldn't rule out any option," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters earlier this week. "We're not guided by the goal of a certain number of U.S. troops in the country. We're guided by the objectives that the president set - disrupt, dismantle, defeat al-Qaida."
There are currently 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Karzai has also met this week with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Both Clinton and Panetta will soon leave their posts, Obama has nominated to two men--Sen. John Kerry for State and former senator Chuck Hagel--who analysts speculate would support a quicker pullout from Afghanistan.
Friday's meeting was the first face-to-face meeting since the two met at the NATO Summit in Chicago in May. The two last spoke by video conference on Sept. 21.
There have been tensions between the Obama and Karzai governments. Karzai has criticized the American military over civilian deaths in the war; Obama and aides have complained of corruption within Karzai's government.
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