President Hamid Karzai speaks at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan,… (Shah Marai / AFP/Getty Images )
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday sought to reassure an anxious public that security will not be compromised when the bulk of U.S. forces leave next year, saying the country needs American aid, not troops, in order to take over the fight against the Taliban.
Karzai said he expected the U.S. to continue training, equipping and paying Afghan national security forces.
"Afghanistan will be more secure after the foreigners leave," Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul. "We do need foreign assistance, but we don't need the presence of their troops."
Karzai's comments did not convince critics who contend that he returned from three days of meetings in Washington last week largely empty-handed.
"He cannot afford to tell the truth," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a Kabul-based political analyst. "The truth is that when … that many troops leave, the economy of this country will be affected, the security of this country will be affected."
Obama's announcement Friday that the timeline for Afghan security forces to take lead responsibility for safeguarding the country had been moved up to spring has aggravated concerns in Afghanistan about whether the army and police will be up to the job. Obama has pledged to bring home nearly all 66,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2014.
Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament's defense committee, said she was hoping for more specifics on the kind of military equipment and backing that will be provided to the national security forces.
"I believe Karzai went with a list" of requirements, she said.
Karzai said that U.S. commitments include providing 500 vehicles, 20 helicopters, four C-130 transport aircraft and drones for intelligence gathering.
The two leaders have yet to agree on the terms of a U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014. U.S. officials envision a narrow training and counter-terrorism mission. But Obama said last week that the U.S. would not keep troops in the country without guaranteed immunity from Afghan prosecution.
"This is a decision that the government of Afghanistan can't make," Karzai said. "It is up to the people of Afghanistan to make a decision through a loya jirga," a traditional gathering of elders.
Karzai may be seeking political cover for a concession on a highly charged issue. A U.S. Army staff sergeant is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last year in a case that many here believe should be tried under Afghan law.
Omar Sharifi, an analyst with the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, said Afghan officials had thought they could use the issue of immunity as a bargaining chip. "Now we know it's a red line," he said.
Karzai touted progress on several other issues, including the transfer of Afghan prisoners under U.S. control, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from rural areas and an agreement on terms under which the Taliban can open an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to pursue an on-again, off-again peace process.
The possibility of a political settlement with the militants has alarmed some Afghan lawmakers, who worry that progress made on women's rights, education and other issues could be sacrificed.
"Practical assurances must be given to people that their rights will not be compromised," said Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken parliamentarian from Badakhshan.
Karzai said there would be no going back on the achievements of the last decade.
"The whole Afghan nation wants peace, but peace with progress," he said.
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul and Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.