Senators press administration about force commitment in Afghanistan

Leading lawmakers called on the Obama administration Thursday to make and announce a decision on the size of the U.S. military force to remain in Afghanistan following combat withdrawal next year.

“The lack of clarity on this point has led to too much hedging in the region,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said of the force commitment.

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“Afghans who may otherwise be interested in building a fledgling democracy want to know that they will not be abandoned by the United States as the Taliban claims they will be,” Menendez told administration officials at a hearing.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks last month regarding the BSA, or bilateral security agreement on a long-term U.S. military presence, in protest over abortive attempts to open a Taliban negotiating office in the capital of Qatar, Doha. The administration, which had indirectly orchestrated the office opening, had anticipated it would provide a venue for U.S. discussions with the insurgents, as well as for reconciliation talks with the Afghan government.

The break in BSA negotiations, and a testy June 25 videoconference between Karzai and President Obama, were followed by a New York Times report this week that the administration is considering canceling plans to leave any post-2014 force in Afghanistan.

James Dobbins, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the committee Thursday that Obama was “still reviewing his options” on the force.

“Of course, without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan, we would not remain. But we do not believe that that’s the likely outcome of these negotiations,” Dobbins said. Unlike Iraq, where similar negotiations over a U.S. follow-on force failed, “the Afghans actually need us to stay,” he said. “Most Afghans want us to stay. And we have promised to stay.”

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about the sensitive discussions, said that a basic text of the BSA has been completed, with gaps remaining on several key points. Chief among them is the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s internal security.

The stated mission of the force, estimated by U.S. military officials at 5,000 to 12,000 troops, is to train, assist and advise Afghan forces as they protect their own country and to continue the counterterrorism fight against remaining al-Qaeda forces in the region.

Under that job description, the Taliban — should it choose to continue fighting — will be Afghanistan’s enemy, not America’s. The Afghan Taliban has not been involved in international terrorism outside of Afghanistan, and it pledged not to launch international attacks from Afghan soil as part of agreements on the Doha office.

Karzai has indicated that he wants a more formal defense commitment, akin to a treaty, which the United States is unwilling to provide. Such a commitment would require congressional approval beyond the presidential signature needed on the proposed bilateral agreement.

For its part, the United States wants freedom of location and movement for Afghan-based special operations forces and CIA personnel to continue counterterrorism missions against remaining al-Qaeda and affiliated forces that operate primarily in Pakistan. Although the CIA has continued drone strikes into Pakistan from airfields inside Afghanistan, that program is due for review near the end of the year, and senior administration officials said its future scope has not been determined.

Formal negotiations on the BSA began in the fall, with completion expected by spring. Officials have indicated that they have now set an informal target of October, when Afghanistan’s presidential election race gets underway.

Addressing Dobbins and acting Assistant Defense Secretary Peter R. Lavoy, lawmakers suggested that an administration announcement of a tentative force structure, even before an agreement is finalized, would reassure Afghans of ongoing U.S. support as they move toward the crucial vote to replace Karzai.

“This continued looking at our navel, trying to make a decision, having competing forces at the White House, is hurting us, it’s hurting our efforts in Afghanistan, it’s hurting our military and it’s hurting our allies,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the senior Republican on the committee.

Menendez and Corker criticized the administration for not paying enough attention to ensuring free and fair elections and spending too much time on fruitless Taliban negotiations. Although the U.S. offer to talk remains on the table, the insurgents this week closed the Doha office and moved back into a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital. Karzai had objected to their use of the Taliban flag and placement of a plaque declaring the office part of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name the Taliban used when it ruled Afghanistan before being ousted in late 2001 by U.S. and Afghan forces.

“In our statements, [we] have to make clear that this election is the top priority,” Stephen V. Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said in separate testimony to the committee Thursday. “I think a lot of Afghans thought that reconciliation with the Taliban was our top priority. This should be our top priority. It is our top priority. We have not made that clear.”

 
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