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US troops to move into support role in Afghanistan in the spring, Obama says

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to moving Afghanistan's security forces into the lead across the country, and endorsed the opening of a "Taliban office." Watch their entire statements.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan will move into a support role starting this spring, President Barack Obama announced at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday.

"This war will come to a responsible end,” Obama said.

Troops will have a new mission in Afghanistan, Obama said, which will include the training, advising, and assisting of Afghan forces and will set the stage for a further reduction of coalition forces.

The president acknowledged that the timetable to turn over the lead to Afghan forces in military operations this spring was “accelerated somewhat.” The drawdown was already scheduled to take place sometime this summer.

Some 66,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan.

Obama was also clear that while Afghan forces will “take the lead” in any future military operations, American troops will continue fighting alongside them.

"Our men and women will still be in harm’s way,” the president said, adding that he is still expecting recommendations from generals on the ground to shape a plan for a responsible drawdown. What the transition to supporting role in Afghanistan would mean for a reduction in U.S. troops "isn't yet fully determined," Obama noted.

International forces will no longer be present in Afghan villages, Karzai said, adding that Afghanistan is moving closer to becoming a strong, sovereign state that can stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States. Karzai had previously said that the presence of U.S. troops were putting strain on Afghan villages.

Beyond 2014, the troops' focus will be two-pronged: on one hand, they will continue training and assisting Afghan troops; in addition, they will continue to go after remnants of al-Qaida and other terrorist affiliates who may threaten the United States.

Immunity agreement
Obama said any agreement to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 must include an immunity agreement so that U.S. troops are not subjected to Afghan law. Karzai noted that he could argue for immunity in a way that would not compromise his country's sovereignty.

The mission in Afghanistan has come close to achieving its central goal, Obama said, which was to incapacitate and dismantle al-Qaida so that it could no longer attack the United States. Having a safe and sovereign Afghanistan was also in the interest of the United States' national security, he added.

But Obama also said it would not be possible for Afghanistan to reconcile with the Taliban unless the group renounces terrorism.

Looking ahead to the upcoming elections, Karzai said organizing a free and fair election would be one of his biggest achievements.

"For me, the greatest of my achievements, eventually, as seen by the Afghan people, will be a proper, well organized, interference-free election in which the Afghan people can elect their next president," Karzai said, adding he would have no qualms about stepping down.

"I will be a retired president, and very happily a retired president."

Karzai's visit comes at a time when U.S.-Afghan relations are strained, and there is an ongoing debate in Washington over the unpopular war and the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the mission there expires in 2014.

The Pentagon has said thousands of troops will be needed to bolster and train Afghan security forces.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were among those who met with Karzai this week.

"After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing ... a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta told Karzai on Thursday.

The Afghan president met with Clinton on Thursday night at the State Department.

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