- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2013

Afghan lawmakers are alarmed that the White House will consider an option to remove all U.S. troops from their country by the end of next year, warning that such a decision would pave the way for a Taliban takeover.

“If all U.S. troops leave, it will be terrible news for Afghanistan,” said Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, a lawmaker from Kandahar province. “Civil war will erupt, and the Taliban will once again control Afghanistan.”

In addition, Mr. Hamidzai and some of his colleagues serving in parliament’s committee on domestic security said in telephone interviews that they doubt Afghan soldiers and police officers will be able to handle their country’s security responsibilities by this spring, as touted by President Obama.

“Afghan forces are not capable of taking over full security duties in the spring,” Mr. Hamidzai said. “[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai is saying we can control security in three months. He is mistaken. We first need to show that we can control a single district.”

Nazifa Zaki, a retired army general who represents Kabul in parliament, said Afghan security forces could carry out their responsibilities after 2014, provided they receive proper training and equipment.

“Right now, they don’t have the equipment. Our air force has no equipment,” said Mrs. Zaki, secretary for the domestic security committee.

U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating about the number of U.S. troops who will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, when all international combat forces are due to leave the country. The American troops would train Afghan security forces and conduct missions against al Qaeda.

The U.S. has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration reportedly has been considering a residual force of 3,000 to 9,000 troops.

Washington and Kabul have yet to reach an agreement on the status of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014, however. Such an agreement would shield U.S. troops from prosecution in Afghan courts for acts committed while on duty.

Last week, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House, told reporters that the Obama administration is open to withdrawing all U.S. troops, the so-called “zero option.”

Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Eklil Hakimi said Monday that some U.S. troops likely would remain in his country after 2014, regardless of the zero option.

“The whole purpose for the [agreement] is for U.S. forces that will stay beyond 2014 … to train, assist and advise our forces and also to combat terrorists,” Mr. Hakimi told reporters in Washington. “We have clarified our red lines, which is Afghan sovereignty, and our U.S. colleagues have already specified their red lines, which is the protection of their forces.”

Saleh Mohammad Saleh, a lawmaker from the northeastern Kunar province, said the U.S. also must ensure that Afghanistan’s neighbors — particularly Pakistan and Iran — don’t meddle in its internal affairs because the Taliban would exploit the ensuing chaos.

“When the Americans helped us, the Taliban were never able to control Afghanistan,” said Mr. Saleh, deputy chairman of the domestic security committee. “God willing, the U.S. force and NATO force will continue to help our security.”

A third round of negotiations on the agreement will begin at the end of this month.

Failure to achieve a similar agreement with Baghdad forced Washington to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq in December 2011.

In Kabul, Mr. Karzai said Monday that a national assembly of elders, known as a loya jirga, must decide on the U.S. demand for immunity for its troops, not his administration.

“It is the decision of the people of Afghanistan. So a loya jirga of the people of Afghanistan should decide,” Mr. Karzai said, according to The Associated Press.

Some Afghan lawmakers are inclined to support a conditional presence of U.S. troops after 2014.

“The Afghan people will let American troops stay beyond 2014 so long as they don’t interfere in Afghanistan’s sovereignty,” Mrs. Zaki said. “It is good to have American troops in Afghanistan because the people believe that, after 2014, the Taliban will come back and they will be in danger.”

Afghan women in particular are worried that the gains they have made over the past decade will be erased if the Taliban returns to power.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Karzai in Washington on Friday, Mr. Obama said U.S. forces will play only a supporting role in Afghan security, beginning this spring. This will accelerate the transition, which had been set to start by the middle of the year.