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President Barack Obama will meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai today at the White House to assess the progress of the war and discuss America’s future role in Afghanistan. The two leaders are expected to talk about a wide range of issues, particularly concerning security transition to the Afghan lead, reconciliation with the Taliban, and Afghanistan’s presidential elections slated for April 2014. At the top of the meeting agenda, however, will be a discussion over the nature, scope and obligations of a residual U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan after the foreign combat mission there ends next year. Three key issues are likely to be contentious in the talks: legal immunity for U.S. soldiers, transfer of detention facilities to the Afghan government, and Kabul’s request for advanced military equipment.
The immunity issue, which derailed negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraq in late 2011, will be the most sensitive one. A postwar U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is inconceivable unless American soldiers are granted protection from local prosecution. Nonetheless, while Karzai might use the question of immunity as leverage to extract concessions from the White House, the issue is unlikely to be a deal breaker this time. Kabul will be more flexible than Baghdad in negotiating a SOFA with Washington because, unlike oil-rich Iraq, Afghanistan’s economy is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. Moreover, the Afghan government requires U.S. and NATO help to fund, train, and equip its 350,000 security personnel for many years beyond 2014.
Another sticking point could be Karzai’s demand for transfer of all detainees held by the U.S. military at a facility in Bagram Air Base near Kabul. The U.S. has already handed over more than 3,000 terrorism suspects to the Afghan government since the two sides signed an agreement last March, but Karzai has recently accused U.S. forces of breaching the accord by still keeping some prisoners under custody. Washington believes the Afghans are not yet ready to take over the control of all prisoners, especially ones believed to be too dangerous or affiliated with al Qaeda.
The Afghan leader may also overplay his hand. He is said to be carrying with him an expensive shopping list to the White House, including requests for advanced weaponry to the Afghan Army, such as fighter jets, surveillance equipment and armored tanks. Pentagon officials have previously rejected such demands, arguing Afghanistan cannot afford, operate and sustain them.
Leaked reports suggest the White House is considering cutting troop numbers by 20,000 to 30,000 this year and keeping as few as 2,500 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, despite requests by military commanders in the field to maintain most of the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops through the next two fighting seasons and a larger post-2014 presence. Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday that a complete pullout by the end of next year is also an option. But while a steep drawdown and keeping a small or no residual force may be politically expedient for the Obama administration, it is a recipe for failure in Afghanistan.
First, without a significant military presence after 2014, Washington risks undoing the gains of the past decade and allowing al Qaeda and the Taliban to reconstitute in parts of Afghanistan. Terrorist groups have already returned to some Afghan areas vacated by withdrawing foreign troops. Residents of eastern Nuristan Province, for example, say about 70 percent of the province is under the de facto rule of the Taliban and foreign militant groups, including al Qaeda and Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT). More remote areas could fall into terrorists’ control if U.S. forces leave precipitously.
Second, a hasty pullout undermines the training and strengthening of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Over the past three years, the ANSF has made remarkable progress in size and quality and is now responsible for security of 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population. But it still remains heavily reliant on the coalition for enablers, such as logistics, air power, medevac, reconnaissance, route-clearing equipment, and intelligence. A Pentagon study released last month rated only one of 23 Afghan Army brigades as independent. Without the coalition’s help, the ANSF’s operational capabilities will decline dramatically. NATO and other allied nations would also not provide sufficient numbers of advisors and mentors for the ANSF if they perceive ambivalence from Washington.
Third, without a post-2014 military presence, the CIA-led drone strikes into Pakistan’s tribal regions will most likely cease. With Washington-Islamabad ties at their nadir, the U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates in South and North Waziristan is now entirely dependent on bases in Afghanistan. The Navy Seal helicopters tasked with killing bin Laden flew from a base in eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
Fourth, a significant post-2014 military presence is needed to send a clear message to friends and enemies in the region that the United States and its allies are not abandoning Afghanistan. The Taliban will not have an incentive to enter meaningful peace talks if they see allied forces on the run. With the ANSF not yet ready to defend against a Taliban return, warlords and minority ethnic leaders would decide to take things on their own hands. Many local strongmen have already begun rearming their militias in preparation for a potential civil war.
The United States has two vital interests in the AfPak region: preventing al Qaeda and its affiliates from reconstituting in Afghanistan and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons do not fall into terrorists’ hands. These two objectives cannot be guaranteed without a significant military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
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