‘What-ifs’ remain for final U.S. pullout in Afghanistan

White House says all American troops could be removed by next year

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Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, a regional specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Afghan president is wrong in that belief.

“The U.S. strategic interest in Afghanistan is of limited proportion,” focused on counterterrorism, Mr. Cordesman said. “To what extent President Karzai understands that is an open question.”

Washington and Kabul are signaling to each other with these pre-negotiating public statements, said regional specialist Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation.

“These are the opening offers from the merchants in the souk,” Mr. Bergen said. “Now the hard bargaining can begin.”

Mr. Karzai has often expressed his impatience with the unaccountability of international forces, and he has criticized their tactics in angry terms, especially when they lead to civilian casualties.

Mr. Karzai is “going to be very reluctant to accede to a bottom-line U.S. demand: that U.S. troops are immune from prosecution,” Mr. Bergen said.

By raising the prospect of a total U.S. withdrawal, U.S. officials might be trying to signal that they are not bluffing, he said.

But it was a clumsy strategic message to Afghanistan and the rest of world, Mr. Bergen said, noting that Afghans “well remember” that the U.S. turned its back on them as their country slid into civil war with the Taliban after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Mr. Cordesman said the zero option might be just a messaging strategy, “but it reflects very real attitudes” in the U.S. and among its allies for whom “the desire to get out is much greater.”

He noted that current international aid to Afghanistan is seven times greater than Kabul’s own revenue, adding that the military and civil aspects of the transition are intertwined.

“Zero means zero civilian aid workers [and diplomats],” he said. “Perhaps a secure embassy in Kabul, and a consulate or two, but that would be it.”

Mr. Cordesman said that because there are no public plans for a post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan, there is no way to know how many troops would be needed then or how to measure their success.

“We should be looking for a plan, not a number,” in talks this week, he said.

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About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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