The Obama administration is considering its options to withdraw some or all U.S. forces from Afghanistan as time runs out for a new security agreement, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
“They’re planning for all options,” Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said after a closed-door briefing today with defense officials at the Capitol. “They have to.”
With Afghan President Hamid Karzai balking at signing a security pact with the U.S., President Barack Obama has scheduled a meeting in the Oval Office today with his top defense advisers to review Afghanistan strategy. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Marine General Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, are among those scheduled to attend.
Obama has pledged to remove all American combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year, while leaving open the possibility of retaining a residual force to train the Afghan military and mount counterterrorism operations. As of Feb. 1, the U.S. had 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, the fewest since the 34,400 when Obama took office in 2009.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said in an interview that several allied nations that have committed troops to Afghanistan can’t wait long to decide what role, if any, they will play after this year. In addition to the U.S., 27 NATO members have sent troops to Afghanistan.
“Some of our NATO allies and partners have different parliamentary and budgetary timelines, and this will be a little hard for them to work through,” Breedlove, the supreme allied commander of NATO, said in an interview in Munich, where he was attending a security conference. A bilateral security agreement with the U.S. would set the stage for a similar pact with the alliance members. “That’s why the sooner we have a signature the better,” he said.
Karzai has said he may wait until after elections scheduled for April choose his successor before signing the agreement, which was approved unanimously last year by a council of tribal elders he convened. The accord would give U.S. troops access to nine bases in the country, as well as providing immunity from prosecution under local laws. Obama removed the remaining American forces from Iraq in 2011 after its government failed to accept a similar agreement.
Karzai also has imposed a series of conditions to conclude the agreement, including a demand that the U.S. initiate peace talks with the Taliban, and has been increasingly vocal in denouncing U.S. policies in Afghanistan.
Several senators today said they’ve concluded that Karzai will never sign the agreement and are looking past him toward a successor. Levin said waiting for the next president would give the U.S. and NATO allies enough time to plan for a limited military presence after this year.
“Really, the drop-dead date is the next president,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee.
Graham praised Dunford, who he said has drafted a credible plan that would retain 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, along with 2,000 to 3,000 NATO troops.
If the administration settles on a smaller troop presence, Graham said, “you’re risking everything” because force protection requires the numbers Dunford has proposed.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who also attended the committee’s briefing, said Karzai has begun holding secret talks with the Taliban because “we continue to send signals we’re leaving.”
The talks, described as unsuccessful, were reported last night by the New York Times, which cited Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, as saying “the last two months have been very positive” and “these parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterward.”
Faizi didn’t respond to phone and e-mailed messages seeking comment. A Taliban spokesman denied having contact with Karzai to arrange peace talks while praising his resistance to signing the accord with the U.S.
“If he doesn’t sign the pact, we praise Karzai,” Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone today from an undisclosed location. “It will create positive relations with him.”
Citing reports that the Obama administration is planning to pull out all troops by 2017, McCain said, “It’s a replay of the Iraq scenario. This is a situation where there is no credibility by the United States of America.”
Levin rejected that argument, saying Karzai would have only himself to blame if the U.S. pulls out.
“If he thinks we’re not going to be there, it’s his decision,” Levin said of Karzai. “He’s the one who’s not signing the bilateral agreement.”
Graham faulted Karzai for planning to release prisoners that the U.S. has called dangerous without first trying them in an Afghan court.
If they’re released without trial, “there will be a violent reaction in Congress” that includes cutting off all development aid, Graham said.
While Graham said he doesn’t expect Karzai to sign the security agreement, “we need to quit making deadlines if we’re not willing to enforce it.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the House intelligence committee today that “over time, the Afghan National Army will have its challenges principally because of the loss of a lot of the intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and aviation capability that will leave with U.S. troops in December.
‘‘Under virtually any scenario, though, they will be able to maintain the security of the major city areas while the Taliban will continue the general trend of growing stronger in the countryside,’’ Clapper said.
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