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Another daunting task for John Podesta: an Afghanistan exit strategy

Podesta Podesta

While incoming White House adviser John Podesta's portfolio will be largely domestic-focused, there's one foreign policy issue that will be central to his job: figuring out how the United States will exit Afghanistan next year.

Podesta has devoted considerable time to studying the conflict in Afghanistan, both during President George W. Bush's administration and President Obama's. The think tank he chairs, Center for American Progress, joined with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung foundation to organize a series of workshops for members of the country's civil society in November 2012 and March 2013, sessions which led to a set of recommendations for Afghanistan’s political transition next year.

It is clear Podesta has no patience for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, given his Nov. 26 interview on NPR's "Morning Edition." During the discussion with host Steve Inskeep, Podesta said, "Karzai has really gone from maddeningly unpredictable to dangerously erratic."

"People speculate all the time about what motivates Karzai," said Podesta, who visited Afghanistan last month. "I've given up trying to psychoanalyze the man, but I don't think he's doing his people any favors."

The former White House chief of staff said Obama is open to pulling out of the country altogether if the United States and Afghanistan can't forge a bilateral security agreement.

"From the United States security perspective, having a stable Afghanistan is important. What happened prior to 2001 indicates that really bad things can happen if there's not a secure Afghanistan," he said in the interview. "But I think, at some point, this has got to be done on terms that are acceptable to the United States. And if President Karzai succeeds in screwing that up, then I think we have to consider the alternative of a complete withdrawal."

On Wednesday the Obama administration softened its demand that Afghanistan sign a security agreement by the end of the year or risk a withdrawal of all Americans troops. Still, the United States could end all military support by the end of 2014 if the Afghan leadership fails to sign the deal soon.

The agreement “should be signed by the end of this year in order for us to start going through the important planning process,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

Even if the administration stretches the timeline a bit, the issue of how the United States can leave Afghanistan while maintaining its national security interests will be something Podesta will grapple with as soon as he reenters the West Wing -- along with climate policy, health care and several other pressing issues.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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