Washington — Determined to show momentum in a war marred by setbacks, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minster David Cameron said for the first time Wednesday that NATO forces would hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan forces next year as the U.S. and its allies aim to get out by the end of 2014.
The announcement added both clarity and urgency to the path of a war that has fallen into a demoralizing period, rocked by the burnings of Qurans at a U.S. base, deadly protests against Americans and a shooting rampage, alleged against a U.S. soldier, that left 16 Afghan civilians dead.
Yet Obama made clear those incidents, and intensifying political pressure surrounding them, will not lead him to bring American troops home sooner.
He said he still plans to gradually withdraw forces through 2014 as Afghan forces take on more responsibility, cautioning no one should expect “any sudden, additional changes” in the pace of withdrawal.
The trials of war, bloodshed in Syria and a nuclear standoff in Iran dominated questioning at a joint appearance by Obama and Cameron at the White House. By contrast, the personal tone of their visit has been all ease as Obama has lavished attention on his younger ally, from a college basketball tournament game on Tuesday night to the magnolia blossoms of the Rose Garden where their news conference was held. It was all to be capped by a glitzy state dinner on the South Lawn.
The news that NATO forces would shift to a support role next year was a natural fit into the allies’ timeline for ending the war by the end of 2014. In fact, it was Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, who caused a stir more than two months ago by suggesting that NATO allies might shift from a combat role to an advisory role by mid-to-late 2013.
The White House announcement seals that tack more firmly, given the context of recent events and the political weight of coming straight from Obama and Cameron.
The two men lead the nations that have sent the most forces into the fight — and whose electorates have long grown sick of the war.
“We’ve been there for 10 years, and people get weary,” conceded Obama, who could pay a political price as the woes of war creep back into the election-year mindset.
Obama and Cameron offered up what amounts to a plan for the beginning of the end of the war in 2013. The NATO shift to a support role means fewer of its forces would be the ones at the front lines of combat.