US President Barack Obama told Hamid Karzai on Tuesday that Washington is now planning a full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan because of the Afghan leader's continued refusal to sign a security pact.
At the same time, in a rare phone call with Karzai, Obama indicated he was willing to wait his mercurial counterpart out and sign a security agreement with a new Afghan president after April elections. That would allow the US to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country.
The effort seemed aimed at marginalising Karzai’s role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war.
“We will leave open the possibility of concluding a [security agreement] with Afghanistan later this year,” the White House said in a statement following the call.
“However, the longer we go without a [deal], the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any US mission.”
Obama’s attempt to minimise Karzai’s importance to US decision-making is the latest twist in a long political struggle between the two leaders, whose relationship has become increasingly fractured over the past few years.
Tuesday’s phone call was the first direct contact between the two since June 2013. The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of US officials.
Washington has said it will not leave troops in the country without legal protections enshrined in the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which Karzai has refused to endorse.
"President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning," the White House said.
"Specifically, President Obama 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 had previously warned that Karzai's intransigence on a deal painstakingly negotiated last year meant it had no choice but to mull the "zero option”.
The statement said Obama was reserving the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year should the new government be willing.
While Karzai has refused to sign the pact, some candidates seeking to replace him have indicated they would.
There is no clear front-runner among the 11 candidates running to replace the president, who is constitutionally ineligible for a third term and has not endorsed a successor.
Among those running are Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up to Karzai in disputed 2009 elections; Qayyum Karzai, a businessman and the president’s older brother, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and academic. Most of the candidates are familiar to US officials.
Although Afghanistan votes on April 5, a run-off and prolonged horse-trading could mean a government is not seated until August – further reducing US planning time.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who left for Brussels to brief NATO defence ministers on US intentions in Afghanistan on Tuesday, backed Obama's move, and confirmed for the first time the Pentagon was actively planning a full withdrawal.
The Pentagon’s biggest challenge will be closing large military facilities, including the Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Shutting down a massive base typically takes about 10 months, but military officials said they are prepared to do it in a much shorter – although far more expensive – period if necessary.
Obama's political opponents have warned that withdrawing the 33,600 US troops currently in Afghanistan would strain fledgling national forces stood up by NATO and could lead to a return by the Taliban.
Some have compared such a scenario to Washington's loss of focus after helping rebels oust Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, leaving a power vacuum exploited by the Taliban, which eventually harboured Al-Qaeda as it planned the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Republican Senator John McCain said Obama should deal with a new Afghan government.
"The consequences of us completely pulling out would be the same as we just saw in Iraq: black flags of Al-Qaeda flying over the city of Fallujah,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2014-02-26