Obama Opacity on Afghanistan Seen Risking Strong Taliban

President Barack Obama’s failure to spell out his plans for Afghanistan is adding to the risk that some Afghans will start negotiating deals with the Taliban, according to former U.S. officials who visited the country.

“In Afghanistan right now there’s a huge amount of anxiety about the scale and nature of the U.S. commitment long-term,” Obama’s former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who was on the trip last month and was the Pentagon’s third highest-ranking official, said in an interview.

She said spelling out U.S. intentions, including how many troops will stay, would “reduce counterproductive hedging behavior on the part of various parties in Afghanistan and in the broader region.”

While Obama has pledged to bring most U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, he hasn’t said how many would remain afterward. That’s allowed other officials to voice their opinions, from a White House adviser who said no troops may remain to generals and Republican lawmakers who’ve argued that more than 13,000 will be needed.

“The president is still considering options for a potential post-2014 presence focused on two basic missions: targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda and training, advising and assisting Afghan forces,” Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “Across the government, including the president himself, we have been very clear in public and private that we are committed to Afghanistan for the long-term.”

The president sent about 33,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan in 2009, putting his own stamp on a war he inherited from George W. Bush’s administration. Since then, Obama’s administration has trumpeted what officials have called signs of civil and military progress in Afghanistan.

Fragile Gains

A return of the Taliban’s Islamic militants to even limited power would risk reversing fragile gains in women’s rights, progress toward strengthening the central government and attempts to bolster Afghan security forces, said members of the group of outside advisers to the administration, who met in Afghanistan last month with officials and citizens.

Popular and political support for continuing the 12-year war is eroding in the U.S. In a March poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, 56 percent said the war hasn’t been worth the effort, up from 47 percent in early 2009 when Obama took office. The latest poll of 1,001 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Afghan war has cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $557 billion so far, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s also cost 2,184 American lives, according to Defense Department data, a growing number of them from attacks by their supposed Afghan allies.

Karzai’s Comments

Afghan President Hamid Karzai hasn’t helped bolster U.S. support for the mission in his country. Distancing himself from the U.S., he last month suggested America was colluding with the Taliban and delayed acting on cooperative measures.

Faced with what some administration officials privately call a no-win choice between quitting the fight and continuing it, Obama hasn’t made his intentions clear.

After months of speculation about how many U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, said in January that Obama was considering leaving no troops unless differences with Karzai’s government could be resolved.

In February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told NATO allies in Brussels that the Obama administration foresees a combined allied presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014.

Generals’ Stance

In a public display of dissent, some U.S. military officials and members of Congress have publicly said that 13,600 American troops and 7,000 from other countries will be necessary.

Among those who have been pressing for that big a force are Marine General James Mattis, who retired last month as head of the U.S. Central Command, Marine General Joseph Dunford, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan; James Cunningham, the American ambassador to Afghanistan; and Republican Representatives Duncan Hunter and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Such conflicting statements have the Afghans worried, said Ronald Neumann, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 under Bush and was among the group that visited Afghanistan. Flournoy, who is now a senior adviser with the Boston Consulting Group Inc., served at the Pentagon under Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama.

Needing Reassurance

“The Afghan audience is paranoid,” Neumann said in an interview, invoking the memory of the Soviet invasion and withdrawal from the country. “They’ve lived through catastrophe that followed abandonment, and people who have gone through that need a lot of reassurance.”

Afghans are looking for details of the U.S. commitment beyond the general assurances reached by Obama and Karzai, said Neumann, who is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington.

In the absence of a clearly stated U.S. position, Afghans are likely to reach agreements with the Taliban and local criminal groups, and tribal and ethnic groups will rearm, Neumann said. “All these hedging and survival behaviors are counterproductive to strengthening the state and the Army,” he said.

The U.S. has called for peace talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban that would require the group to lay down arms.

Strategic Agreement

A strategic agreement between Obama and Karzai that was signed in May outlined a broad framework for military, economic and social cooperation between their countries while leaving the details to be negotiated. Since then, the two sides have been discussing a bilateral security agreement that, among other provisions, would guarantee U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under Afghan laws.

“Our negotiators are working to complete the negotiations as soon as possible and will hold another round of negotiations in Kabul in the near future,” Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, said.

Failure to obtain a similar Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq led to the withdrawal of all American troops from that country by the end of 2011.

Comments by Afghan officials such as one last month by Minister of Energy and Water Ismail Khan, who said Afghanistan should refrain from reaching such an accord with the U.S., reflect the hedging behavior that’s starting to emerge in the country, said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France.

‘Wandering, Miserable’

“We shouldn’t sign a document by which we would remain dependent, wandering, miserable and at the same time have no other option but to accept foreigners,” Khan said in Herat on March 22, Tolo News of Afghanistan reported. “We shouldn’t sign this pact.”

To forestall such comments and prevent Taliban and “other elements backed by outside forces” from manipulation, “clarity from both Kabul and Washington is essential,” said Samad, who runs Silk Road Consulting, a Washington-based geopolitical advisory firm. The two sides must state what the “strategic agreement is all about and give all stakeholders a conclusive message about what’s going to happen after 2014.”

The rising number of Afghan asylum seekers is another probable indication of increasing unease among the country’s citizens, said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a nonprofit policy group.

Seeking Asylum

The number of Afghans seeking asylum in the 27 European Union nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rose 36 percent in 2011 from the previous year, the latest period for which data is available, according the group.

“There are also some reports of Afghan officers and families seeking asylum in India,” Ruttig said in a phone interview.

The absence of a clear message from Obama about a continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan may be an indication that the president hasn’t made up his mind, said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who also was in the group that traveled to Afghanistan.

“Obviously Obama was of two minds” about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after the war there ended, O’Hanlon said in an interview. “He may have similar ambivalence” about Afghanistan.

Contingent on Immunity

If Obama favors keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, negotiations with Afghanistan on the bilateral security agreement “would be more effective if we said, ‘We’d like to stay, here’s the force package we’ll stay with, but it’s contingent’” on Afghanistan granting immunity to U.S. troops and promising that presidential elections scheduled for April 2014 “are not hijacked,” O’Hanlon said.

Concerns about a lack of U.S. clarity may be overblown, said retired Marine Corps General John Allen, who headed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan until December.

“We have been very clear that we intend to stay,” Allen said in an interview. “The question is what are the numbers going to be? I think explanations have been made that the nature of the force that will remain will be sufficient to conduct the training and advising as well as counterterrorism operations.”

Allen, who retired from the Marine Corps in March, declined to say what troop strength he favored or what the Obama administration might decide.

Asking the Afghan government to agree to a bilateral security agreement without specifying how many U.S. troops will remain in their country after 2014 is like asking a customer to sign a contract to buy a car without saying what options are included, former ambassador Neumann said.

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