U.S. military forces in Afghanistan will move into a strictly supportive role as early as spring, said President Obama during a press conference Friday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama said the U.S. has achieved in Afghanistan what it set out to do -- dismantle al-Qaida and secure the country so that it cannot again become a safe haven for terrorist groups intending to attack the U.S.
"Soon, nearly 90 percent of Afghans will live in areas where Afghan forces are in the lead for their own security," Obama said. "This year … Afghan forces will take the lead for security across the entire country. By the end of next year, the transition will be complete. Afghans will have full responsibility for their security and this war will come to a responsible end."
As the Afghans take over, U.S. forces will continue drawing down in numbers, with those still in country increasingly operating in a support role.
"Our troops will continue to fight alongside the Afghans troops when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission -- training, advising [and] assisting Afghan forces."
Obama said it will be a historic moment and a step toward Afghanistan's complete national sovereignty.
There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The number was boosted to nearly 100,000 after Obama took office in 2009, but that surge ended in September with the redeployment of the additional forces.'
Standing next to Karzai, Obama also announced his agreement with the Afghan president on the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks.
"Ultimately, security [advances] have to be matched by political progress so we recommitted our nations to a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban," Obama said. "Today we agreed that this process should be advance by the opening of a Taliban office to facilitate talks."
In his remarks, Karzai said the Doha, Qatar, peace talks would occur directly between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan High Council for Peace.
"We will be trying our best, together with the United States and our other allies, to return peace and stability to Afghanistan as soon as possible, and employing all the means that we have within our power to do that, so the Afghan people can live in security and peace and work for their prosperity and educate their children," Karzai said.
Pentagon leaders have suggested the possibility remains that no troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 should Karzai not agree to a deal granting immunity to U.S. troops from Afghan laws.
Obama supported those statements saying "it will not be possible for us to have any kind of U.S. troop presence post-2014" without such an agreement.
Although Obama emphasized that the U.S. has achieved what it set out to do, he said the Afghan government has to ensure the security of the constitution it adopted following the ousting of the Taliban.
Obama made that point after a reporter noted that Afghan women fear having their rights stripped away as a result of any reconciliation with the Taliban.
"The Afghan constitution protects the rights of Afghan women," Obama said. "And the United States strongly believes that Afghanistan cannot succeed unless it gives opportunity to its women. We believe that about every country in the world."