KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's president said Saturday that the U.S. and NATO troops transferring security to local forces should leave the country's villages as soon as possible and pull back to their bases.
The U.S. has already said that from mid-2013 on, the United States and its allies would operate from fewer bases and that the withdrawal of military supplies and equipment from Afghanistan would accelerate. But the comments from the Afghan leader suggest he would like to see that process gain some momentum.
"There will be a change in our relations with the world in 2013," President Hamid Karzai said at the opening of a conference on Afghan foreign policy strategy. "The U.S. and NATO forces are going to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but before that — in 2013 — the transition of security is going to be completed and there will be no military activity of foreign forces in Afghanistan."
"We are working to make this transition of security happen sooner. We want all the foreign forces to come out of the villages and go to their bases so the Afghan forces can carry out the security," Karzai said, adding that that after the international forces pull back to their bases, they can gradually return home from there, completing the withdrawal by the end of 2014.
International forces have been fighting for more than a decade against the Taliban and other militants who allowed al-Qaida to operate in Afghanistan and plot the 9/11 attacks. Karzai has long stressed that terrorism is not rooted in Afghan villages, but resides in other sanctuaries outside the country — a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan.
"From our vision, the fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan," he said. "That is why we do not want military operations in our villages, in our houses."
Karzai discounted fears that Afghanistan would descend into a civil war of ethnic factions after the foreign combat troops complete their withdrawal. He said he was confident that Afghan soldiers and police can handle security.
"I'm completely sure that the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 will give us more opportunity to provide more security," Karzai said. "We are the owners of this country. We should really show that we are the owners of this country."
Karzai reiterated his call for national unity and instructed the Afghan diplomats at the conference to return to their assigned countries and present Afghanistan as a proud, sovereign and unified nation.
"We are poor, but we are lord of this region," Karzai said. "Our history has proven that we are the lord of this region. ... So wherever you are based, you should act as a lord — a poor lord, but a lord."
When they meet during the week of Jan. 7, Karzai and President Barack Obama will discuss the pace of coalition troop withdrawals, efforts to pursue peace with the Taliban as well as the role and size of U.S. military presence in his country beginning in 2015.
During a trip to Afghanistan this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta offered no clues about what Obama will decide. Other officials have indicated that the White House is considering plans that call for between 6,000 and 10,000 U.S. troops to stay for several years after 2014 in order to keep Afghanistan on a path toward stability and to prevent al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups from re-emerging as a significant force in the country.
The U.S. now has about 66,000 troops here, along with about 35,000 from allied nations. No decision on 2013 U.S. troop withdrawals is likely to be announced until after Karzai meets Obama in Washington in early January. The U.S. withdrew 10,000 troops last year and another 23,000 this year.
There have been calls in Congress for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal next year, and from commanders' own optimistic assessments of progress, it appears such a speedup could be coming. Some U.S. military officials, however, warn that pulling out too many troops too fast could squander hard-won sacrifices.