Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai arrived yesterday in a war-weary Washington amid warning signs that the U.S. may pull out of his country completely after next year unless differences can be resolved.
Karzai, accompanied by senior members of his administration, has meetings scheduled tomorrow with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and on Jan. 11 with President Barack Obama at the White House.
The U.S. and Afghanistan are in discussions that will ultimately determine how many of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in the country will remain after 2014, when Obama has pledged to bring most of them home. The talks turn on numerous disputes, from Afghan demands for more control over aid and detainees to U.S. insistence on immunity for its troops from local prosecution and progress by Karzai in reducing corruption.
The Obama administration signaled yesterday on a conference call with reporters that it’s ready for what Doug Lute, Obama’s deputy assistant for South Asia, called “very candid” discussions with Karzai. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, underscored that message by saying the U.S. is prepared to pull out of Afghanistan altogether after 2014 if an accord can’t be reached.
“I’d say that would be an option we would consider,” Rhodes said when asked if the Obama administration is considering withdrawing all troops after 2014. Obama “does not view these negotiations as having the goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
Pentagon officials have proposed keeping some troops in the country after 2014 to conduct operations against terrorists and to train Afghan forces. Only one Afghan brigade out of 23 was ranked as capable of operating independently, even with the help of allied advisers, as of the end of September, according to a Pentagon report.
The discussions and Karzai’s visit take place as U.S. sentiment toward Afghanistan has hardened, Omar Samad, the senior expert in residence on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said in an interview.
“It’s important for the Afghan side to realize they’re coming to Washington where there’s very little appetite for continuing engagement as we know it,” said Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France. “There’s very little support for funding levels we have seen over the years and there’s a loss of trust and maybe even goodwill in some sectors of the American public.”
Six of 10 Americans said U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to an Oct. 18 poll by the Pew Research Center. The poll, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points, found 35 percent said troops should remain until the situation there has stabilized.
The U.S. is trying to strike a balance between allowing Afghanistan full sovereignty versus continuing counterterrorism operations and the training of Afghan forces.
“It is not an objective in and of itself to have a certain number of troops,” Rhodes said.
The U.S. and Afghanistan are attempting to negotiate a “status of forces agreement” for an American military contingent to provide air support, training and other assistance after 2014.
Among the U.S. demands are immunity for remaining troops from local prosection. Failure to reach such an accord led to the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.
While immunity is “of tremendous importance to the U.S., we in Afghanistan have certain important issues as well,” including questions over “detentions and taking of detainees that directly touch on Afghan sovereignty,” Karzai said Dec. 13 at a news conference in Kabul with Panetta.
The U.S. also will discuss with Karzai “progress on corruption, on transparency, on accountability,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Improvement in those measures would lead to the U.S. providing more economic assistance through programs run by the Afghan government, as Karzai wants, rather than through independent organizations, Nuland said.
Afghanistan was listed among the world’s most corrupt countries last year, ranked at 174 of 176 nations, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that rates how corrupt the public sector is perceived to be.
The nation also remains a center of drug production and trafficking. Opium poppy cultivation increased 18 percent in 2012 from the previous year, according to the Afghanistan Opium Survey cited by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Expecting “drastic, dramatic change in how governance is handled in Afghanistan” may be unrealistic, said Samad, the former Afghan official. “But it does not hurt to try.”
White House officials said no final agreement on future U.S. force levels will be reached during this week’s visit.
Predicting the outcome of the talks with Karzai is difficult because “none of us know the details of what has gone on in the last couple of months by way of preparation,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.
At best, the two sides may endorse continuing the transition that calls for Afghanistan to take on more security responsibilities, Cordesman said.
The handover has been set back by a rise in so-called insider attacks by Afghan soldiers on coalition forces.
Adding to the uncertainty is whether Karzai will keep his pledge to step down from the presidency when his term ends in 2014, according to Cordesman, who said, “So far, there is no logical succession plan.”
Most nations in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force are eager to leave Afghanistan “very, very quickly,” Cordesman said.
In addition to the U.S., about 47 nations had 37,000 troops in Afghanistan as of Dec. 31, according to a Jan. 4 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Since 2001, the military mission and economic assistance to Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers about $557 billion, according to the report. The Obama administration is seeking $9.7 billion in economic aid and $82 billion in war costs for the current fiscal year.
In Afghanistan, the uncertain negotiations with the U.S. have contributed to “a sort of murky, foggy future,” Samad said.
If Obama and Karzai can agree on a strategic vision of how both countries view Afghanistan and the region beyond 2014, “then I’d feel more comfortable,” Samad said. “If the focus is on immediate issues, then it means it is tied to political expediency.”