Top aide: President wants to see how Afghan security forces and politicians perform before deciding.
By Michael Hirsh
As concerns grow over Afghanistan’s fate after the planned NATO withdrawal in 2014, President Obama is taking his time before committing any troops, a senior aide said on Monday. Obama wants to wait on results from the newly created Afghan National Security Forces this “fighting season,” which ends in the fall, as well testing how the Afghan political process plays out ahead of the national election planned for next year.
“This is a case of wanting to get it right rather than fast,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, said in an interview.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said back in January that they were working on a bilateral security agreement as part of a “strategic partnership” extending to 2024. But no details have emerged, and a new report co-authored by Marine Gen. John Allen, Obama’s former top commander in Afghanistan, and Michele Flournoy, who served as the president’s chief foreign-policy spokesman during the 2012 presidential campaign, raises questions about prolonging the talks.
“We favor stating the rough contours of an American force soon,” says the report, published by the Center for a New American Security and also co-authored by Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings. “Clarifying the U.S. commitment would make it clear to Afghans that only their own reluctance, and specifically that of the Karzai government, stands in the way of firming up the partnership. Given Afghanistan’s historical fear of abandonment, we believe the psychology of such a clear American commitment of intent would be all to the good.”
The authors also caution the U.S. and NATO “against accelerating disengagement prior to 2014 and under-resourcing their commitment to Afghanistan after 2014.”
Rhodes said the president is committed to a U.S. presence in Afghanistan post 2014, but “there are a variety of factors we need to take into account. One is an assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces.” The president also wants to “evaluate the potential for the political process in Afghanistan,” Rhodes said. He added: “We are waiting until we feel like these different pieces fit together such that the president can make a decision.” As of the end of June, the ANSF is expected to take over the lead on planning and implementing missions across the country. U.S. officials are also worried, as are some Afghan officials, that no clear successor to Karzai will emerge as candidates begin to vie for the presidency this fall, leading to factionalization and possibly civil war, which is what occurred following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Still, Afghan authorities are getting uneasy about the U.S. commitment, as a recent reporting trip to Afghanistan indicated. Karzai, in what appeared to be a breach of confidentiality, revealed in a speech in May that the two sides are negotiating over the use of nine Afghan bases after 2014. Although U.S. officials did not confirm that, Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of International Security Assistance Force and a British officer, said in an interview in Kabul in mid-May that NATO is considering the need for that many bases to support and supply six Afghan corps, as well as provide a headquarters, air-support mission, and training facility.
Senior Afghan and ISAF officials also agreed that the Afghan military and police will need at least several more years of major assistance, in logistics, air support, medical services and other areas after 2014. “We still need their help and support, maybe for another 5-10 years,” Army Chief of Staff Sher Mohammad Karimi said in an interview in May. That assessment was echoed by Carter, who said the U.S. and NATO will have to “train, advise and assist”—the post-2014 mission—probably until at least 2018.
Yet Obama has not clarified the size and shape of the U.S. force to be left in Afghanistan after the final drawdown of the 63,000 or so American troops that remain. U.S. and European officials interviewed in Kabul indicated that most of the NATO countries are waiting on the U.S. president before making their own commitments.
Based on early planning, the post-2014 force was expected to number about 8,000 U.S. troops, complemented by another 4,000 or so from NATO and ISAF countries. But France and Canada have already announced they are leaving Afghanistan completely, and thus far only Germany and Sweden have stepped up with offers of fewer than a thousand troops for training.