MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul on Friday to press Afghan President Hamid Karzai to conclude a security accord that would maintain a limited U.S. military force in Afghanistan after 2014.
Kerry’s visit, which wasn’t announced in advance for security reasons, comes as disagreements jeopardize the U.S. goal of reaching a bilateral security agreement by the end of this month. Karzai and President Barack Obama have flirted publicly with accepting failure in the talks, resulting in the U.S. abandoning plans for a residual force of thousands of American troops to conduct training and counterterrorism operations after 2014.
Afghan and U.S. officials have reasons to want a deal, so it’s “highly unlikely” they’ll walk away, said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. Still, the negotiations are precarious because both sides are engaging in “a fair amount of brinkmanship,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research organization.
“It’s not really hard for relatively small errors on either side to produce deadlock and failure,” Biddle said by telephone. A complete U.S. military withdrawal, especially if coupled with a cutoff of American funds for the Afghan security forces, would be “catastrophic” for Afghanistan, he said.
“In all likelihood, its military and security forces would break up, and you probably would get something that looks a lot like a return to the 1990s-style civil warfare in Afghanistan,” he said. “Clearly, that is not in Afghanistan’s interest; I don’t think it is in the United States’ interest either.”
The U.S. now has about 52,000 troops in Afghanistan, down 14,000 in the past six months under a plan to reach 34,000 by February and to have forces out by the end of 2014. Obama hasn’t set a force level under a post-2014 accord, although it may be lower than proposed by U.S. military commanders.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan until February, said he had recommended to Obama that the U.S. maintain a force of 13,600 and another 6,000 troops from allied nations. That’s far more than the 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and allied troops that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke about before stepping down in February.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hasn’t said what level he envisions. Administration officials have said that choices reviewed by Obama, whose priority has been to end major U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade, have included a “zero option” that would leave no U.S. forces there after 2014.
The fate of the Bilateral Security Agreement has implications beyond whether outside forces will remain to help the Afghan government and be a symbolic bulwark against insurgents. International economic support promised over the next decade is unlikely to come through “without the security platform to facilitate the investment,” Allen said at a Tuesday event organized by Bloomberg Government and Leading Authorities, a speakers’ bureau that represents Allen.
Already, uncertainty about what will happen as U.S. and allied troops withdraw has contributed to the decision by some Afghan businessmen to leave the country and shift their operations to Dubai and elsewhere. The uncertainty is compounded by Afghan elections next year, when Karzai completes his second and final five-year term as president.
If there is a post-2014 American military commitment, it should be coupled with a “coherent strategy” for reaching a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban, Biddle said. Without that, he said, “a continued U.S. presence just throws good money after bad.”
The U.S. anticipates concluding the post-2014 accord soon, said an administration official who asked not to be identified in discussing the private negotiations. The official said the current situation isn’t an impasse, and talks have been continuing. Recently, Karzai has stepped in to lead the Afghan negotiations with U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham.
Reaching a security agreement in coming weeks is necessary so the Pentagon can schedule deployments and plan what equipment to keep in the country, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Sept. 27 after a visit to the South Asian nation. Carter will step down in December, Hagel said on Thursday.
The failure of similar talks with Iraq, which broke down on the issue of legal immunity for American troops, led to a total U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 that has been followed by growing al-Qaida attacks and sectarian violence.
The two key sticking points with Afghanistan are “real and difficult,” and Karzai may misunderstand “just how fatigued and fed up the Obama administration is with him, and the American public and Congress is with the endeavor,” said Caroline Wadhams, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group.
“He has the potential to push too hard and be too intransigent with his demands,” and then Obama “could end up walking away,” she said by telephone.
Karzai’s demand for a U.S. commitment to defend Afghanistan from Pakistan Ã¢ÂÂ its nuclear-armed neighbor and a U.S. ally that also harbors elements of the Taliban and other extremist groups Ã¢ÂÂ is a non-starter, Biddle said.
“The United States can’t promise to invade Pakistan if the Taliban use Pakistan as base camps for attacking Afghanistan,” he said. “If Karzai is going to insist on that, then that’ll blow up the deal.”
A second issue is the U.S. insistence on being permitted to continue conducting lethal raids against al-Qaida and other terrorist targets in Afghanistan, said Aimal Faizi, a Karzai spokesman. The American position on being able to conduct “independent counterterrorism operations” undermines the country’s sovereignty, he told reporters last week in Kabul.
Karzai faces pressure to end the “night raids,” as American special forces call their sorties. The operations remain unpopular with the Afghan public even as the U.S. has reduced civilian casualties.
“President Karzai does not trust the United States and NATO in how they conduct attacks,” said Wadhams, referring to North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. “He thinks that we’ve been reckless and that we have not protected civilians to the extent we should have.”
U.S. troops “can leave” if the agreement “doesn’t suit us,” Karzai said Monday in an interview aired by the British Broadcasting Corp. Two days earlier, Obama said in an Associated Press interview that the U.S. will continue to pursue al-Qaida “even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”
“What I’ve said is that if, in fact, the Afghan government is interested and willing to work with us in a cooperative way that protects our troops and other coalition partners, we would consider a train-and-advise mission that would extend beyond 2014 Ã¢ÂÂ greatly reduced from what we’re doing now,” Obama said in the AP interview.
In a Tuesday news briefing at his fortified palace, Karzai said that next month he will convene a Loya Jirga, a national gathering of provincial and ethnic elders, to discuss the security accord, including whether to grant immunity to American troops. The latter issue brought down a U.S. deal with Iraq.
Karzai is preparing to present an accord to the elders as a way to protect himself from possible backlash, the Kabul Center’s Rahmani said. The Loya Jirga will back whatever he wants because most of the participants will be pro-Karzai figures from southern Afghanistan, he said.