Frustrated with his Afghan counterpart, President Barack Obama is ordering the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan's next president may eventually sign a stalled security agreement that could prevent the U.S. from having to take that step.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the first direct conversation between the two leaders since last June. The White House has become increasingly unhappy with Karzai, who has refused to sign a security pact that the White House says is crucial to keeping a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes at the end of this year.
With no sign that Karzai will sign the agreement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama "has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014." However, he added that the U.S. remains open to keeping troops in Afghanistan if an agreement can be signed later this year, likely after the April Afghan elections.
That decision appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai's role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war. The Afghan leader has irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
The White House insists it won't keep any American troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying in the country. While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement before that time, officials said the size and scope of any U.S. mission could shrink the longer Obama waits.
Despite the troubled ties between Washington and Kabul, many of Obama's advisers want to see American troops stay in Afghanistan after the war ends. The Pentagon envisions keeping up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan security forces, though some White House advisers would prefer keeping fewer troops, if any.
The U.S. military has also drawn up blueprints for a full withdrawal, and Tuesday's developments appeared to push that idea closer to the forefront of Pentagon planning.
"We will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA (bilateral security agreement) with Afghanistan later this year," the White House said in a summary of the call between the two leaders, adding that "the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Obama's order to the Pentagon "a prudent step," given the likelihood that Karzai will not sign a deal. But he said that the Pentagon would continue to make plans for a possible U.S. mission in Afghanistan after this year and that this mission would focus on counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces.
Hagel will discuss the future of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan with NATO leaders during a summit this week in Brussels. Hagel said planning for what is known as "the zero option" is a prudent step, given that Karzai has made clear he is unlikely to sign the security deal.
The U.S. currently has about 33,600 troops in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in 2010. Obama has been weighing options from the Pentagon that would keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country after this year, contingent on the security agreement. But some White House officials are believed to support keeping a smaller troop presence.
The longer the decision takes, the more expensive and risky the troop drawdown will become. With less time to move troops and equipment, the military will have to fly assets out rather than use cheaper ground transportation.
If the security pact is not ultimately signed, 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 much more quickly — although far more expensively — if necessary.
Military officials said commanders would still like to have about six months to shut the facilities down. If there is no security agreement by late summer, the officials said closing the bases by the end of the year becomes far more difficult.