US troops in Afghanistan will end “most” combat operations this spring, US President Barack Obama and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai have said.
They said US troops were expected to switch to a support role, slightly earlier than originally scheduled, as Afghan forces take the security lead.
The two leaders also backed the holding of talks in Doha, Qatar, between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Most of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan are due to leave in 2014.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission – training, advising, assisting Afghan forces,” Mr Obama said in remarks at White House, as Mr Karzai stood alongside. “It will be an historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.”
The transition of US troops to a support role by this spring would be a little earlier than the mid-2013 deadline agreed at a Nato summit in Chicago last year.
A joint statement issued by the leaders during Friday’s meeting raised the possibility that some troops could stay after the end of the next year, but did not discuss numbers.
Mr Karzai and Mr Obama committed to crafting a bilateral security agreement “as soon as possible” and “discussed the possibility of a post-2014 US presence that is sustainable, that supports a capable and effective Afghan National Security Force, and that continues to pressure the remnants of al-Qaeda and its affiliates”.
US commanders have suggested leaving between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan to pursue insurgents and train Afghan security forces.
Mr Obama reaffirmed that the US seeks no permanent bases in Afghanistan, the statement added.
“President Obama reaffirmed the United States’ respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty and reiterated that as Afghanistan takes full responsibility for its security and development, the US continues to be committed to supporting the Afghan people,” the presidents said.