The U.S. military is now preparing to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, President Barack Obama told Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, marking the latest attempt by the American commander-in-chief to cajole his counterpart into signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, that would define the U.S. role there after the end of this year.
“Because [Karzai] 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 in a readout of their call Tuesday morning. “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.”
This marks the first time Obama has said he has directed the military to prepare for such plans. It comes amid a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels of all coalition countries participating in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan to plan for the year ahead.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a separate statement he strongly supports Obama’s decision, calling it a “prudent step” given Karzai’s hard-nosed attitude.
Karzai has so far refused to sign the BSA, which was agreed to late last year by the U.S. government and a council of Afghan elders known as the Loya Jirga, which functions as its parliament. He has cited his concerns over how the remaining forces will be governed, and whether they can operate unilaterally. Only Karzai’s signature stands between the BSA and its implementation.
The remaining U.S. force, expected to number roughly 10,000, would only serve in a training and advising role for the fledgling Afghan forces and may operate on its own only to hunt down the remnants of al-Qaida operatives and leadership there.
Security experts across the spectrum and around the world consider the complete pullout of American forces an all-but death sentence for the Afghan National Army and other components of its security forces as they exist today, which have only operated in their current form for less than a decade.
Estimates rates of desertion among Afghan troops range up to 20 percent should the U.S. and coalition fighters completely withdraw, leaving the fragile infrastructure at the mercy of infighting among rival tribes and ethnic groups.
The West has a crystal ball of sorts into Afghanistan’s future after a complete withdrawal through the ongoing situation in Iraq, where sectarian violence threatens to rip the country apart. Obama oversaw the withdrawal of all U.S. forces there in late 2011 following a request as such from the Iraqi government. Multiple Iraq veterans who have spoken with U.S. News cite the visceral “gut punch” feeling of witnessing hard fought ground in towns such as Fallujah and Ramadi fall back into the hands of extremists allied with al-Qaida.
Many Western leaders including members of Congress have looked to the upcoming Afghan elections in April, and to Karzai’s potential successor, as a solution to the current president’s refusal to sign the BSA. Under Afghan law, Karzai could not remain in office for another term. Widespread fraud shook the 2009 election in which Karzai was re-elected, causing some to worry of repeated meddling this year.
Obama said Tuesday the U.S. is still open to keeping an enduring force in Afghanistan if Karzai signs the BSA.
“However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission,” the White House stated. “Furthermore, 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.”