The United States should unequivocally state its intentions for a post-2014 troop presence in Afghanistan to reassure the Afghan people ahead of elections next year, national security experts said Thursday.
U.S. officials are now pushing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a security deal by October, which would specify the levels of U.S. and NATO assistance forces after the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of next year. Negotiations have stalled as Karzai makes demands U.S. officials are hesitant to meet. His demands include guarantees to secure Afghanistan’s borders from foreign intervention and attempts to avoid the perception that he is undermining Afghan sovereignty.
Karzai said Tuesday there is no rush on completing a deal.
“The Americans wanted this security agreement in March or April, and now they are trying to bring it in October,” he said at a youth conference in Kabul, the capital. “But we want to do well, not to hurry; they are in a rush, not us. We are very relaxed.”
Experts testifying before the House Armed Services Committee said the United States should come out in front of the negotiations by clarifying what type of security structure it wants to leave in place post-2014. Such a declaration would bolster the confidence of the Afghan people and counter the Taliban narrative that the United States is jumping ship, said Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense.
“If we were to state a clear commitment and intention—and the only thing standing in between that commitment is the Afghan government being reasonable in negotiations and coming to a conclusion—I actually think it shifts the burden in the negotiations and puts the pressure on the Afghan government to reach an agreement,” she said.
The Obama administration and Pentagon officials have floated a “zero option” that would eliminate any U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan after next year.
However, Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, said that tactic “seriously undermines confidence” among the Afghan people and leaders. She also described an attempt at a grand bargain between Karzai and the Taliban as a “red herring” that does not serve Afghan or U.S. interests. Karzai called off the reconciliation talks in June after the Taliban hoisted its flag above its temporary offices in Doha, Qatar.
The official stance of the administration on a security assistance force in Afghanistan remains unclear.
“At this point there is so little clarity of what the mission means that I don’t know what the administration actually intends to accomplish with these missions,” said Ronald Neumann, former ambassador to Afghanistan.
While the witnesses differed on their recommendations for how many troops the United States should leave in place, they generally agreed that a force between 10,000 and 20,000 would aid the counterterror efforts of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) against the Taliban, hold Afghan officials accountable for corruption, and promote stability.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff for the Army, recommended a total force of 20,000 after 2014 to train and advise the ANSF and assist with counterterror operations.
Keane said the United States should continue to provide funding for ANSF, which currently has 352,000 troops, and authorize the targeting of Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.
Only sustained effort will ensure a secure outcome in the country and impede the re-entry of terrorists, he added. The United States should avoid a situation like Iraq, he said, where the reemergence of al Qaeda has led to more than 4,000 deaths since April in the absence of any type of U.S. security assistance force.
The numbers matter, Keane said.
“Iraq is a case in point,” he said. “The commander in Iraq recommended a force of 20,000 to 25,000.”
“No one took that number seriously. It went from 10,000, to 6,000, to 3,000, to nothing. It began because the number put on the table was not taken seriously.”
Afghanistan also faces critical elections on April 5 that will determine Karzai’s successor. Concerns have been raised about the potential for a divisive campaign with several candidates, some less friendly to U.S. interests.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Karzai was seeking support for a former Islamist warlord who brought Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan and served as a “mentor” for Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, according to the 9/11 commission report.
The upcoming elections are yet another reason why the United States should remain engaged, Flournoy said.
“Afghanistan is not a lost cause,” she said. “The U.S. can still achieve its chief goal of preventing Afghanistan from ever again being a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
“Now is a time to lock in hard gains, not cut our losses.”