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.
Both leaders sought to show steady progress in ensuring Afghanistan would never again be a launching point for terrorism.
The White House discussions follow the weekend killings of the Afghan civilians and the deaths of six British troops last week in a roadside bomb blast — the largest loss of life in a single incident for British forces in Afghanistan since 2006. Cameron insisted "we will not give up on this mission."
"We have to keep reminding ourselves and everybody else why we are there," Cameron said. "It's not some selfish, long-term strategic interest; it's simply that we want Afghanistan to be able to look after its own security with its own security forces so we are safe at home."
The war in Afghanistan began in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
The United States has roughly 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama plans to drop that number to 68,000 by late September but has offered no specific withdrawal plan after that. Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan and plans to shrink that contingent to 9,000 by the end of this year.
Both leaders had strong words on Syria, with Obama offering a more candid sense of the consequences of military intervention. The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad is accused of killing some 7,500 people during a yearlong uprising, and the U.S., Britain and other allies have been stymied by Russia and China in finding a diplomatic world response.
Cameron said the horrible images out of Syria "shouldn't be allowed to stand in our world." He and Obama stood by a strategy of political and financial pressure until Assad goes.
Pressed on the use of force, Obama said: "Our military plans for everything." But he warned of an international response that could lead to civil war and more deaths.
"When we see what's happening on television, you know, our natural instinct is to act," Obama said. "One of the things that I think both of us have learned ... is that it's very important for us to make sure that we have thought through all of our actions before we take those steps."
Obama also flashed increasing impatience with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. The West fears Iran is pursuing a bomb, which Iran denies. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China plan another round of talks with Iran, but Obama openly doubted that "Iran will walk through this door that we're offering them."
He added: "This window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking."
Obama, 50, and Cameron, 45, appeared to be fast friends as they reveled in a remarkably warm and sunny March day at the White House. The night after Obama treated Cameron to a trip on Air Force One and a basketball game in Ohio, Cameron and his wife, Samantha, were welcomed to the White House to the sounds of military bands and cheering children.Comment on this story
The president and prime minister traded jokes about American and British sports, recalled their fun together last year in London, gave each gifts and even found levity in the fact that British forces burned down the White House nearly 200 years ago.
"They really lit up the place," Obama said. "But we moved on."
Cameron, delighting a crowd of thousands on the White House grounds, responded: "My ancestors tried to burn this place down. I can see you've got the place a little better defended today."
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Jim Kuhnhenn, Ken Thomas, Mark S. Smith and Julie Pace in Washington and David Stringer in London contributed to this story.