Is Troop Withdrawal on the Horizon?


By Debbie Gregory.

A cooling relationship between President Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai may lead to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014.

The New York Times reports that a one-time, worst-case scenario is becoming a serious alternative for U.S. officials who have become frustrated in their negotiations with the South Asian nation.

President Obama plans to end America’s military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Negotiations have begun to create a small “residual force” that will remain behind.

The Times account says the relationship between Obama and Karzai has been “slowly unraveling,” reaching a new low with last month’s U.S. move to open peace talks with the Taliban.

The report says a June 27 videoconference, designed to defuse the tensions between the two presidents, “ended badly.”  The Times reports Karzai accused the U.S. of trying to forge a separate peace with the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters. Karzai said such an arrangement would expose Afghanistan’s government to its enemies. The Taliban has long refused to meet directly with the Afghan government.

Karzai then abruptly ended negotiations with the U.S., including talks regarding any deals to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. Negotiations would not resume, he said, until the Taliban met directly with the Afghan government.

While Karzai has accused the U.S. of conspiring with its enemies in the past, President Obama reminded him that Americans have been killed in support of the Afghan government.

The Times report quotes a senior Western official in Kabul, who said leaving no troops in Afghanistan has always been seen as a zero option, but never a main option. Now, with tensions mounting, he said Washington may see the zero option as the realistic path.

The Times quotes the official as saying that he hoped members of Karzai’s government understood that the zero option is now a real possibility and that “they’re learning now, not later, when it’s going to be too late.”

Despite the posturing, an Afghan official told Reuters the two governments understand how to “pressure” each other, and “fully understand” the need for foreign troops, especially U.S. troops, to stay beyond 2014.  The official said an American presence is vital for security in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Currently, there are about 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is scheduled to drop to 34,000 in February, 2014. Obama previously said all troops would be home by the end of that year, though an accelerated schedule could bring nearly all of them back by summer.

Once U.S. forces leave, European ally forces will leave as well. Additionally, Afghanistan is expected to receive only a fraction of the $8 billion in annual military and civilian aid it expects in the coming years.