JUDY WOODRUFF: The future U.S. military role in Afghanistan was front and center today, as President Obama met with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. They reported progress in their talks, and said the pace of the security transition will be expedited.
At their first face-to-face meeting since May, the leaders announced they're accelerating the handoff from U.S. and coalition forces to Afghan troops.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let me say it as plainly as I can. Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be an historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan: In spring this year, the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security and protection to the Afghan people, and that the international forces, the American forces will be no longer present in Afghan villages.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has sharply complained that fighting in Afghan villages is causing too many civilian casualties. And there have been other strains, from Koran burnings by American soldiers to deadly insider attacks by Afghan soldiers.
For now, the U.S. still has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, but it's moving toward withdrawing all combat forces by the end of 2014. General John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has laid out a range of troop level options to President Obama, from as high as 20,000 to as low as 6,000, to stay on to train Afghan soldiers and fight al-Qaida.
White House officials are said to favor fewer troops. This week, deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes even suggested it's possible that no Americans will stay. The president declined to name a number today.
BARACK OBAMA: I'm still getting recommendations from the Pentagon and our commanders on the ground in terms of what that would look like. And when we have more information about that, I will be describing that to the American people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In November, the U.S. and Afghanistan started negotiations on a so-called bilateral security agreement to govern any future American military role. U.S. officials have insisted that any troops who do stay must have legal protection, as the president said again today.
BARACK OBAMA: We have arrangements like this with countries all around the world. And no where do we have any kind of security agreement with a country without immunity for our troops.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In turn, Karzai said now that the transition is being expedited, the immunity question may no longer be a sticking point.
HAMID KARZAI: I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised, in a way that Afghan law will not be compromised.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Kabul, the questions of whether U.S. troops remain, and how many and under what conditions, have divided Afghans, as evident this week.
SALAHUDDIN KHAN, Afghanistan (through translator): If all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan after 2014, the civil war will start once again, because we have experienced civil war in the past. It will happen again if all troops go home.
FARHAD JAN, Afghanistan (through translator): I think it is necessary for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan because our national army is capable enough to defend and save the country in any situation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: According to NATO, the Afghan national army force now stands at 187,000. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta voiced confidence in those forces as he met with President Karzai at the Pentagon.
The Afghan government has also been pursuing peace talks with the Taliban. As part of that process, the Karzai government has urged Pakistan to release more Taliban fighters. Four were freed last week, after more than two dozen were released in the past few months.
Whatever comes of the peace efforts, President Karzai said again today he plans to step down next year.
HAMID KARZAI: Certainly, I will be a retired president and very happily in retirement.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Karzai has been dogged by charges of fraud since his reelection, part of larger concerns about corruption in his government. He acknowledged the concerns today and said he hopes for a proper election to name his successor.