U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington D.C., the United States, Jan. 11, 2013. (Xinhua/Fang Zhe)
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday announced "a support role" for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan starting this spring instead of this summer, setting himself on track to wind down faster a costly and unpopular war.
He also won a pledge of help from his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in pushing for legal immunity for expected American residual forces in Afghanistan after 2014 when most coalition troops exit.
EARLIER SUPPORT ROLE
Karzai was in Washington the past four days for extensive discussions with top American officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The visit culminated in his face-to-face meeting with Obama on Friday at the White House, their first since they last met at a NATO summit in Chicago in May last year.
Their talks, focused on transition in security and economy, presidential elections in Afghanistan and reconciliation with the Taliban, appeared to have narrowed differences between their countries.
Addressing a joint press conference with Karzai after the talks, Obama announced an earlier change of role for coalition forces in the Central Asian nation.
"Today we agreed that, as Afghan forces take the lead and as President Karzai announces the final phase of the transition, coalition forces will move to a support role this spring," Obama said.
"Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces," he added. "It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty."
At their Chicago summit, NATO leaders agreed to shift to a support role in mid-2013 and withdraw most of their combat troops by the end of 2014.
Citing the ongoing transition of lead security to the Afghan forces and the military advances made against the al-Qaida and the Taliban, Obama claimed to have or "have come very close" to achieving the central goal of decapitating and dismantling al-Qaida, "to make sure that they can't attack us again."
A joint statement released by the two presidents prior to their meeting with reporters noted that the Afghan security forces have taken the lead in providing security in 80 percent of the country and will secure some 90 percent of the population in spring.
For his part, Karzai voiced his pleasure about the new arrangement, saying "I'm very happy to hear from the president, as we also discussed it earlier, that in spring this year, the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security and protection to the Afghan people."
"The international forces, the American forces, will be no longer present in Afghan villages," he added, referring to the haunted issue of civilian deaths in the decade-old war, an irritant in Kabul's ties with Washington.