Barack Obama and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai came close to sealing a deal at the White House on Friday that would keep a small US force in the country after the pullout of most international forces at the end of 2014.
Obama also hinted that that pullout may be accelerated, citing a speedier than predicted handover to Afghanistan security forces this spring.
"That doesn't mean that coalition forces, including US forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops," Obama said. "It does mean, though, that Afghans will have taken the lead, and our presence, the nature of our work, will be different. We will be in a training, assisting, advising role."
There are 66,000 US troops and 33,000 Nato and other international forces left in Afghanistan.
An early return of troops, with only a vestige of the force left behind in 2014, would be popular in the US where there is little enthusiasm – or, in some cases, even interest – in the war.
Visits by Karzai to Washington in the past have been fractious, and Obama looked tired on Friday after hours of negotiation. But both men made sufficient concessions to pave the way for a bilateral security agreement to keep US troops in Afghanistan post-2014. No agreement was reached on the precise number, with estimates ranging from between 3,000 to 9,000.
A deal with Afghanistan would contrast with Iraq, where Obama was criticised for failing to secure a deal to retain a military presence in the country after formal withdrawal. Republicans, in particular, saw this as scant reward for US involvement in Iraq.
The sticking point for the US, which pulled the last of its forces from Iraq in December 2011, was the refusal of the Iraqi government to guarantee immunity from prosecution for American forces stationed in the country – and this issue cropped up again with Karzai.
As part of the negotiations, Karzai managed to wring from Obama a series of concessions, including a faster timetable for withdrawal of international forces from Afghan villages, their presence being a frequent source of tension. He also secured the transfer of Afghan detainees held by international forces to Afghanistan government control.
Karzai, in a fairly emollient mood compared with some previously testy visits to Washington, told the White House press conference: "With those issues resolved, I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for US troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised, Afghan law will not be compromised."
Obama, at the press conference, was anxious to emphasise that US involvement in Afghanistan was winding down.
"Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission – training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.By the end of next year – 2014 – the transition will be complete. This war will come to a responsible end," Obama said.
Asked if the war had been worth it, Obama opted for a few minutes of reflection. "Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal.
"Did we achieve our central goal, and have we been able to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that goal. We are in the process of achieving that goal."
Karzai has been resistant in the past to entering into negotiations with the Taliban, a course advocated by Washington. But Karzai gave ground at the White House, confirming on Friday the long-awaited opening of a Taliban office in Doha to facilitate negotiations.
Obama views the role the US role after 2014 as minimal, the job of small force left behind as simply to advise, train and assist Afghanistan forces in battling al-Qaida and affiliated groups. "It is a very limited mission. It is not one that would require the same kind of footprint obviously that we have had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan."
He confirmed his main concern was to secure immunity for US troops post-2014. "President Karzai's primary concern … is making sure Afghan sovereignty is respected. If we have a follow-on force of any sort past 2014, it has to be at the invitation of the Afghan government and they have to feel comfortable with it.
"I will say, and have said to President Karzai, that we have arrangements like this with countries all around the world, and nowhere do we have any security agreements with a country without immunity agreements for our troops."
Obama added: "It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women operating there are somehow subject to the jurisdiction of another country."
Karzai, in response, signalled he would comply. "The bilateral security agreement is in the interest of both countries. We understand the issue of immunity is of very specific importance for the United States, as was for us the issues of sovereignty and detentions and the continued presence of international forces in Afghan villages and the very conduct of the war itself," he said, adding these had all been satisfactorily resolved.
One of the issues that has caused the US and other international governments engaged in Afghanistan the most angst is the high level of corruption. Asked at the press conference, Karzai remained vague, acknowledging that there is corruption in Afghanistan and that the government was involved. Progress had been made in combating it, Karzai said, but he was not satisfed.
Asked about a promise to protect women's rights, Obama was unequivocal. "The Afghan constitution protects the rights of Afghan women. 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.
"And so we will continue to voice very strongly support for the Afghan constitution, its protection of minorities, its protection of women. And we think that a failure to provide that protection not only will make reconciliation impossible to achieve, but also would make Afghanistan's long-term development impossible to achieve."
Karzai restricted his response to: "Indeed. Indeed."
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