Afghan Outcome a Mystery Obama Can’t Resolve in Speech

President Barack Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union address last year that “our war in Afghanistan will be over” by the end of 2014. When he speaks again tonight, he won’t be able to say how it will end.

Plans to announce a continuing U.S. presence in the country have been frustrated by President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign an agreement for some troops to stay, as he has made a succession of demands, hurled accusations questioning American actions and intentions and ordered the release of prisoners the U.S. and allies call dangerous insurgents.

While Obama administration officials had said Karzai needed to sign the troop agreement by the end of last month, they should wait until after Afghan’s presidential elections in April and deal instead with his successor, according to David Sedney, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

“I hope the president leaves the door open for continued discussions” in his State of the Union speech, Sedney said in an interview. “Because the question that Afghans are asking is why can’t we wait for the next Afghan president?”

American public approval of the war that began in 2001 is at an all-time low, and Pentagon officials who have argued against leaving too small a force in Afghanistan have proposed keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops for a few years, or none at all.

Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, will be in Washington this week and will meet with Obama administration officials, according to Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Unpopular War

Americans’ support for the war in Afghanistan fell under 20 percent, making the longest U.S. war also the most unpopular, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Dec. 30. More than half of those surveyed wanted all U.S. troops to be withdrawn before the end of this year.

Opposition to the war has increased to 82 percent of those surveyed from 46 percent five years ago, according to the telephone survey of 1,035 adults nationwide conducted from Dec. 16 to 19. It had a sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

In last year’s address to Congress, Obama said an agreement with Afghanistan would allow some American troops to stay for two purposes: “training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”

Troop Immunity

The bilateral security agreement -- negotiated with Karzai and approved by a council of elders that he convened -- would grant the U.S. access to nine Afghan bases and offer immunity to American troops from prosecution under Afghan laws.

Karzai has balked at signing the accord while accusing U.S. forces of wantonly killing Afghan civilians in raids and even orchestrating suicide bombings in the country that the U.S. blames on the Taliban. This week, Karzai ordered the release of 37 prisoners over strenuous objections from U.S. and NATO officials.

Karzai may be playing to his fellow Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan, said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. The Taliban are a Pashtun group whose origins are in the southern Kandahar province.

His strategy may be to “shore up his domestic base,” Bensahel said. “I’m sure he’s thinking about what happens after the elections, assuming he steps down. He’d want to have a very strong role behind the scenes. That may be part of this calculation.”

Reason to Wait

Leading candidates in the Afghan presidential elections have signaled their support for an agreement with the U.S., making it wise for the administration to wait, said Sedney, who is now affiliated with the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a Washington-based group that favors continued international assistance to Afghanistan.

While waiting would be prudent, it also carries risks, said Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, a policy group with ties to the Obama administration, and a scholar on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“What if the elections go badly?” Wadhams said in an interview. “Then that would undermine the case for a bilateral security agreement.”

NATO Allies

The Obama administration also is under pressure from its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies who contribute some of the 57,000 foreign troops now in Afghanistan, and are anxious to plan their future presence in the country, Wadhams said. The U.S. has 37,500 troops.

Each country has to prepare and win approval from its legislature for troops to stay, and waiting until after elections may leave little time to plan, Wadhams said.

While Karzai’s antics “are indeed very disturbing, and really hard to find a rational explanation for,” the U.S. shouldn’t allow him to dictate its long-term policy, said Andrew Wilder, an Afghan analyst who’s also vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded nonpartisan policy research group in Washington.

“Our top priority now should not be” the security agreement “but having a relatively credible election that results in a legitimate successor to Karzai,” Wilder said in an e-mail. “We’ll then have an opportunity to reset our relationship with the Afghan government on what I’m confident will be a much more friendly and constructive basis.”

Pakistan’s Role

Ensuring a safe and successful election in Afghanistan also depends on how well neighboring Pakistan controls members of the Taliban and the Haqqani network that operate from its territory, Sedney said.

Last week Pakistani military jets and helicopter gunships carried out attacks in north Waziristan, a province in the northwest of Pakistan along Afghanistan’s border, killing dozens of people, including 61 insurgents, in retaliation for bomb attacks by the Pakistani Taliban that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers.

If the Pakistani military moved into north Waziristan and restrained militant groups “that would be a major benefit to the Afghan elections,” Sedney said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.