The U.S. is preparing for the possibility there won’t be a security agreement with Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai leaves office, which could delay for months a decision on whether any coalition troops will remain there after this year.
President Barack Obama, who has been pressuring Karzai to act, met yesterday with Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, and top defense advisers amid preparations for this month’s NATO ministers meeting at which troop levels will be one of the main topics.
Elections to choose Karzai’s successor are scheduled for April, and it may take months before a new government is fully in place, even if the process goes smoothly. The White House has said without a security accord, no U.S. troops can remain in Afghanistan beyond this year. The inability to reach a similiar security pact in Iraq triggered a complete pullout of U.S. forces in 2011.
Lawmakers who favor a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan say that waiting for the elections leaves enough time to decide on the number of U.S. and allied troops that would remain.
The administration should “simply not count on Karzai signing a bilateral security agreement,” Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “It’s the next president who will be more reliable.”
Levin said waiting out Karzai still gives the U.S. and allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization enough time to plan for a limited military presence to train Afghan troops and conduct counter-terrorism operations past the end of 2014.
“Really, the drop-dead date is the next president,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, which was briefed privately by defense officials yesterday at the Capitol.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday the U.S. “can’t wait months” for the Afghans to sign a bilateral security agreement. He urged Karzai to act or face the potential of all troops leaving.
“This has to be a matter of weeks,” he said. “When you’re making plans for NATO, a dynamic organization with many members and around a situation like a military presence halfway around the world, you need time.”
Carney declined to set an ultimatum. “I don’t have a deadline for you,” he said.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy-research institute, said the administration has “gone from red lines to pink lines to gray lines.”
“It’s obvious you are trying to send signals” to the Afghans,’’ he said of the White House. “It’s also very likely that you’re sending signals without having made any clear decisions about how to approach Afghanistan, about what the U.S. posture in Afghanistan should be. You haven’t decided the conditions for staying or leaving.”
Cordesman said the White House shouldn’t delay planning.
“You have to consider the timelines here,” he said. “We need a budget decision, congressional support, a plan you can actually implement. It’s about facilities, people, equipment.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that while bringing Dunford and top Pentagon leaders together at the White House “does suggest an important meeting,” it doesn’t mean the president is about to make a decision.
“It doesn’t compute now that they’re just two months away from the Afghan elections,” he said. “At some point, who cares what Karzai thinks? At this point, the No. 1 issue should be how to cope with the demands of the election process.”
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 of about 10,000 personnel if a security agreement is signed. If the Afghan government waits too long, the U.S. may be forced into a so-called zero-option plan -- withdrawing all troops.
“It’s a replay of the Iraq scenario,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who also attended the committee’s briefing. “This is a situation where there is no credibility by the United States of America.”
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 U.S. hasn’t announced a schedule for further withdrawals.
NATO’s top commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said 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 a Feb. 2 interview in Munich, where he was attending a security conference. “That’s why the sooner we have a signature the better.”
A security agreement was approved unanimously last year by a council of tribal elders Karzai 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.
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.
Graham said Dunford 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, he said.