WASHINGTON — Inching closer to ending an unpopular and costly war, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he is moving up the time line for Afghan forces to take the lead in securing their country.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said American troops will turn over that responsibility this spring, rather than in the middle of the year, the previous target. The modest adjustment is possible because of recent "devastating blows" against al-Qaida and success in uprooting Taliban strongholds, he said.
"Our path is clear, and we are moving forward," Obama said. "Every day, more Afghans are stepping up and taking responsibility for their own security. And as they do, our troops will come home. And next year, this long war will come to a responsible end."
The president said he hadn't fully determined what the new time line means in terms of the pace of withdrawal. He has vowed to bring home nearly all 66,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2014.
The announcement came after a day of meetings and a working lunch with Karzai at the White House, part of the Afghan leader's visit to Washington this week. Though the leaders touted the accelerated pace for the security transition, their private conversations reportedly were dominated by thornier questions that largely remain unresolved.
The two leaders have yet to agree on the terms of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, and the Obama administration made no announcements about the size of that force.
Karzai has long believed that the U.S. wants to keep troops permanently in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida, giving him leverage to extract continued aid. But Obama and his aides sought to puncture that idea, noting that, with al-Qaida weakened, the main reason for keeping troops may have disappeared.
Administration officials have discussed leaving 3,000 to 9,000 troops, but White House aides said a complete pullout is also possible. Obama did not commit to a troop level Friday but said the U.S. role would be narrowed to training and counterterrorism missions.
"That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we've had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan," he said.
The two leaders said they had made broad progress on other points.
Obama declared that "it will not be possible" for the United States to keep troops in the country after 2014 without an agreement that guarantees them immunity from prosecution.
Karzai has resisted that idea but seemed to soften on Friday. "I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised," he said.
Such an arrangement is possible, he said, because the two sides have made progress on another sticking point: the question of Afghan detainees under U.S. control.
Afghan and U.S. officials have twice before declared that they had resolved the dispute. But the issue has festered, in part over the U.S. insistence that it will keep control of dozens of non-Afghan detainees considered especially dangerous at the jointly run prison facility adjoining Bagram air base.
Obama and Karzai also touted an agreement to open an office supported by both governments in Doha, Qatar, to work on restarted peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The incremental steps, Obama said, are signs that he will hold to his vow, oft-repeated during his re-election campaign, to end the war swiftly and responsibly.
But even as he provided assurances that U.S. forces have achieved — "or have come very close to achieving" — the disruption of al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan, Obama also acknowledged how hopes for a postwar Afghanistan have fallen.
"Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. You know, this is a human enterprise, and, you know, you fall short of the ideal," Obama said, reflecting on the 11-year-old war.
Hours before the leaders spoke, NATO officials said a Spanish bomb-disposal specialist had been killed in an explosion Friday in northwestern Afghanistan.
Sgt. David Fernandez Urena, 35, died while investigating a device found on a road in Badghis province, the Spanish Defense Ministry said.