NATO to Plan Afghan Withdrawal Without Pact, Hagel Says

The U.S. and its NATO allies say they will begin planning for a complete withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan by December in the absence of a security agreement with the country’s government.

“The longer we go without a bilateral security agreement and a NATO status of forces agreement, the more challenging it will be” for the U.S. and its allies to prepare for a post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Brussels yesterday after meeting with defense ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization whose members have deployed troops in Afghanistan.

“We agreed the alliance should also begin planning for various contingencies in Afghanistan, while still supporting continued planning” for the follow-on mission, Hagel said.

Whether foreign troops remain in Afghanistan after December to continue training local forces and conduct counterterrorism operations hinges on the Afghan government’s signing security agreements with the U.S. and NATO nations.

After months of U.S. pressure and repeated deadlines failed to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to conclude a bilateral pact over U.S. troop presence, President Barack Obama said on Feb. 25 that he asked the Pentagon to prepare plans for withdrawal of all forces by December, while waiting to see if an agreement may still be reached with the next president following Afghan presidential elections scheduled for April 5.

Karzai’s Decision

Obama told Karzai that “because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign” the security agreement, the U.S. “is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” according to a statement by the White House.

“No nation can commit its troops, resources, or people to a sovereign nation” if they’re not invited, Hagel said at a news conference in Brussels. If foreign troops are forced to withdraw in the absence of a security agreement, “one of the consequences could very well be an erosion of confidence” in a stable Afghanistan. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”

As long as the security pact is unsigned, the U.S. and NATO allies must plan for two opposite possibilities: a continued troop presence, or their swift withdrawal.

Within the U.S. administration, there is debate over how many -- if any -- troops should be kept behind after this year. Lawmakers critical of Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan say the president should make a commitment to keep U.S. forces there to protect American interests, and not invoke Karzai’s failure to sign an agreement as reason to delay.

‘Lame Duck’

“Rather than using a lame duck like Karzai as an excuse for some other contingency, the administration should remain focused on signing a security agreement with a new president and planning for a post-2014 presence that can achieve U.S. objectives in Afghanistan,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said when asked about the possibility of pulling all foreign troops out.

Corker said in an e-mail yesterday that it’s critical to maintain “a residual force that is capable of helping Afghans preserve the hard-won gains of our military.”

Between now and July, U.S. and allied forces plan to assist in Afghanistan’s elections by providing logistical support, while assembling troops that will remain in Afghanistan to carry on training the Afghan National Security Forces as well as carrying out counterterrorism missions, a U.S. military official told reporters in Brussels.

Troop Planning

Military officials see sufficient flexibility to continue planning for troops to stay on after December even if Afghan presidential elections go into a second round, said the U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to abide by NATO’s rules that prohibit public remarks ahead of comments by the alliance’s secretary general.

If a security agreement to allow foreign forces is not in place between the months of August and October, military planners may have to examine how and when to withdraw all troops, the U.S. military official said.

Asked how delays in getting an agreement would affect military options and missions, the U.S. official said Afghanistan’s neighbors would begin hedging to protect their interests in the region in the absence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and the alliance’s cohesion could begin to fray.

Without foreign troops to continue training them, Afghan forces would not be able to sustain the gains they’ve made, the U.S. official said. Afghan forces would continue to require assistance in building the capabilities of the defense and interior ministries, as well as assistance with intelligence collection, logistics and air support, the U.S. official said.

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