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As U.S. Starts Afghanistan Drawdown, Long-Term Concerns Linger


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Hamid Karzai, of Afghanistan, has concluded a four-day visit to Washington, D.C. The president met with senior administration officials, including a private meeting in the Oval Office with President Obama. Their discussions reportedly centered on the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014. That's when most of the U.S. and NATO troops are due to withdraw from the country. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Obama once called Afghanistan a war of necessity, but his meeting with President Karzai centered on how to start winding down U.S. involvement in that conflict. During a joint press conference, Mr. Obama said the war was moving to what he called a responsible end, in 2014; and that the two leaders agreed that U.S. and NATO troops would shift into a support role this spring, a few months ahead of schedule, putting Afghan security forces in the lead.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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 - something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people.

NORTHAM: Mr. Obama indicated accelerating that transition to Afghan control could affect the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals. He said he would consult with military commanders on the ground to decide how many, and how quickly, Western troops should leave. President Obama said he was also getting recommendations about keeping forces in the country post-2014. Estimates vary from 3- to 9,000 troops. Mr. Obama said if any troops remain, they will have to have immunity.

OBAMA: I will say, then - I've said to President Karzai - that we have arrangements like this with countries all around the world. And nowhere do we have any kind of security agreement with a country, without immunity for our troops. You know, that's how I, as commander in chief, can make sure that our folks are protected in carrying out very difficult missions.

NORTHAM: Mr. Obama said he thinks President Karzai understands that but clearly, the issue of immunity has not been resolved. And White House officials said earlier this week, the U.S. was not committed to leaving any forces in Afghanistan after 2014. The immunity issue is part of ongoing negotiations between the two countries, to ensure each gets what it needs as the clock ticks down on U.S. operations in Afghanistan, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: They each have to make their own decisions about how much they're going to really use this particular moment to push the other, and how much they're going to try to reinforce a relationship that, by the way, is nowhere near over. I mean, it may be true that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is drawing down substantially, but Afghanistan still very much needs us for long-term help. And we still very much need to be in that part of the world, to deal with the terrorism threat.

NORTHAM: And so, O'Hanlon says, there will be some concessions from both sides, in the coming months. One of Karzai's long-held demands was satisfied during Friday's White House meeting.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: We agreed on the complete retain of detention centers and detainees to Afghan sovereignty, and that this will be implemented soon after my return to Afghanistan.

NORTHAM: The U.S. has been reluctant to hand full control of the detention centers back to the Afghans, over fear that Taliban fighters would be released and returned to the battlefield. The administration is also concerned about Karzai's commitment to maintaining improvements in human rights, education, and the political process in Afghanistan. During the press conference, Karzai reiterated his promise to step down after a new president is elected in 2014. That's just a few months before the U.S. and NATO combat mission ends.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.