President Barack Obama says U.S. troops are speeding up the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
Obama made the announcement on January 11 as he held talks in Washington with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama indicated that U.S. troops will shift to a support role for Afghan forces during the spring 2013 -- a few months earlier than expected.
"What is going to happen this spring is that Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country," he said. "That doesn't mean coalition forces, including U.S. forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops. 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."
The U.S. military was originally expected to start its shift away from a combat role during the summer, ahead of the planned withdrawal of all foreign combat forces by the end of 2014.
Obama said the Afghan war, though it fell short in some areas, had achieved its main goal of crippling Al-Qaeda terrorists, and said Afghanistan now has a better chance for peace and prosperity than before American-led troops toppled the Taliban regime after the September 11, 2011 attacks.
Obama did not announce any decisions about how many U.S. troops will remain in the country after the planned withdrawal to train Afghan forces and help with security.
But he said the discussions with Karzai included the issue of a "possible" U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Reports from Washington suggest Obama has been considering keeping 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train and assist Afghan security forces.
Officials have said the administration is also considering pulling out all troops after 2014.
A complete withdrawal would leave no U.S. trainers or air support for the fledgling Afghan National Army and National Police.
Karzai told reporters that he and Obama also discussed preparations for next year's Afghan presidential election and the prospects for advancing Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.
"We agreed on allowing a Taliban office in Qatar, in Doha, where the Taliban will engage in direct talks with the representatives of the Afghan High Council for Peace [and] where we will be seeking the help of relevant regional countries -- including Pakistan," Karzai said.
Karzai added that he and Obama had agreed on the "complete return" of Afghan detention centers and their detainees to Afghan control.
Karzai, who has been in power for more than a decade, also pledged to step down as president
at the end of his second term in 2014, and allow a successor to be elected.
In a later speech at Georgetown University, Karzai suggested that Afghanistan had a bright future.
"Afghanistan is definitely moving in the right direction," he said. "2014 will be a good year for us and the years after will be even better."
Former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, Omar Samad, currently a senior Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, called Karzai's visit possibly the Afghan leader's most significant trip to Washington in the last 11 years.
"We’re approaching the end of the U.S.-NATO military combat mission in Afghanistan," he said. "We’re approaching a transition that has several dimensions: political, economic, security, social and even generational."
Medal Of Honor
It was also announced on January 11 that the United States would bestow the country's highest military award -- the Congressional Medal of Honor -- to a sergeant for his "courageous actions" during combat operations in Afghanistan.
A White House press release said Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha showed "gallantry above and beyond the call of duty" during October 2009 combat operations in the Kamdesh District of Afghanistan's Nuristan Province.
He will be the fourth living recipient of the award to be recognized for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Romesha also previously served a combat tour of Iraq and an operational deployment in Kosovo.
Obama will present the award on February 11.
With reporting by AP,AFP, and Reuters