Obama Puts Press on Karzai, Threatening Pullout of U.S. Troops
During a Tuesday phone call with President Barack Obama, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai indicated he would not sign the bilateral security agreement that would provide a legal basis for keeping U.S. troops in his country, where they have been stationed for nearly 13 years. In a press release detailing the conversation, the White House said Karzai had “demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign” the long-term security agreement with the United States before he leaves office.
Elections will take place in April, but if the country’s history is any indicator, runoffs will likely follow, meaning Afghanistan may be facing months of political uncertainty that will further postpone the drafting of a security agreement meant to keep several thousand American troops in the country after combat operations conclude this year.
With the future of Afghanistan’s leadership and the security pact unclear, Obama informed Karzai that the United States would move forward with contingency planning. For the Department of Defense, this means preparing for a possible withdrawal of the 33,600 U.S. troops still in the country by the end of this year if no security agreement is inked. Already, the president “has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” the White House said.
Despite the warning given to Karzai by Obama and the preparations he told the Defense Department to make, the possibility that a bilateral security agreement will be signed is not totally out of the realm of possibility. Rather, the White House’s blunt description of the conversation with Karzai is a symptom of the president’s frustration with the leader’s hesitancy to sign an agreement as well as the erosion of his trust in Karzai.
Tuesday was only the administration’s most recent push for Karzai to sign the pact. In recent months, the White House has both vocally and quietly entreated the Afghan leader to sign the document negotiated in October. Shortly after the agreement was inked, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice traveled to Afghanistan in order urge Karzai to sign the deal, but he balked.
Continued lobbying by U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham also failed to produce results, and even the support for the agreement from a grand council of elders who met in the Afghan capital of Kabul in late November did not sway Karzai’s position. Per Reuters, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested a NATO defense ministers meeting in February as a potential new deadline, but that meeting is this week. Hagel has released a statement express his “strong support” for Obama’s decision.
The main reason the United States has put such strong pressure on Karzai is that timing is a crucial factor in pulling out troops. Of course, in terms of withdrawal, the U.S. has several options. The White House could either keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for a period of at least two years to train and support the country’s military, or a smaller, 3,000-troop force could remain in the country to focus on counterterrorism. The third option is total withdrawal, known as the “zero option,” similar to the U.S.’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.
That option is not popular with Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan. “In my opinion the zero option should not be an option,” a Pakistani official told the Washington Post. “Zero option means a civil war in Afghanistan.” The official also said he feared a complete U.S. withdrawal would cause nearly a third of Afghanistan’s security forces, about 100,000 troops, to desert.
Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, a civil war followed, and the Taliban was eventually propelled into power. Karzai may be worried about American troops killing his people, but the implications of a civil war do not produce a pretty picture, either.
For the United States, the most important reason to stay in Afghanistan is to guarantee that Washington maintains a small say in the country’s affairs. “I’ve said it before — the very best exit strategy is not to have an exit strategy,” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told Time, “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run.”
While a pullout could allow Taliban forces to rebuild, it would be a politically popular decision in the United States. But given the amount of money spent on the war in Afghanistan, which could total as much as $6 trillion, as well as the more than 2,000 lives lost, leaving the country to fall into civil war would be a unpalatable end to a long and difficult war.
Karzai has been the only president of Afghanistan since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in late 2001. All major candidates for president have signaled they would sign the security agreement.
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