Over the past few months, the Obama administration has made the case –both quietly and vociferously – for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year. Shortly after the agreement was negotiated, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice traveled to Afghanistan and urged Karzai to sign the deal. When he balked, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointed to a NATO defense minister’s meeting in February as a potential new deadline; despite continued lobbying by U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham in the intervening weeks, Karzai stuck to his position, refusing to sign, despite support for the agreement from a grand council of elders who met in Kabul in late November.
On Tuesday, President Obama tried the most direct approach yet to convince Karzai that without a signed agreement, the U.S. will pull all of its troops out of the country. Obama spoke with Karzai by telephone, and according to a White House statement, “President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the [Bilateral Security Agreement], the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning.”
Karzai has said that he would not sign the agreement until after elections in April, where Afghanistan will elect its only president other than Karzai since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in late 2001. But the U.S. has kept up pressure because timing is a crucial factor. Hagel has said that the military needs time to plan for a residual force. He initially gave a deadline of Jan. 1, then hedged a bit, but it is clear that every week that goes by without a signed agreement makes it more difficult for a even a small NATO force to remain behind. “The longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission,” Obama said to Karzai on Tuesday, according to the White House. “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.”
Scale and ambition are important. The White House has considered two proposals: keeping 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for at least two years to train and support the Afghan military; or, keeping around 3,000 troops in the country to focus on counterterrorism missions – special operations raids when necessary and likely continued drone strikes. Only a minority of any force will consist of combat troops, while most will perform support functions such as base security, logistics support and administration. A larger force would allow the U.S., and any NATO allies who stay on board, the possibility of conducting a broader array of missions to support the Afghan military.
The third option is a total American withdrawal, similar to Iraq in 2011. The so-called “zero option” would leave behind the American embassy and security staff, but no additional troops, a prospect that worries at least some in the government of Pakistan, Afghanistan’s strategically crucial neighbor. The Washington Post quoted a senior Pakistani official offering nearly apocalyptic predictions if American forces leave Afghanistan entirely. “In my opinion the zero option should not be an option,” the Pakistani official said. “Zero option means a civil war in Afghanistan.” He went on to say that he feared a complete U.S. withdrawal would cause nearly a third of Afghanistan’s security forces – roughly 100,000 troops – to desert.
Afghan forces have made progress and gained confidence, but some commanders worry they will lose ground to the Taliban if the U.S. vanishes. Gen. Momand Katawazai, the administrative and logistics deputy for the Afghan National Army, endorsed the BSA, telling a Kabul television station, “No country can operate without the help of another country, so this agreement must be signed.”
Not everyone is so sure. After the State of the Union address, where Obama said the U.S. is prepared to leave a small force in Afghanistan, former Prime Minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai said he did not think international troops should stay behind even to train Afghan soldiers, gesturing to Afghan anger at American drone strikes and night-time raids. “Even if [a] very small number of forces are there and agreed on, they will do what they want,” Ahmadzai told Voice of America. “And the things they want to do are not in the interest of the Afghan nation.”
One of the most important reasons to leave troops in Afghanistan is that a residual force of any size guarantees Washington a place at the table in Kabul. It would allow the U.S. ambassador and senior military commander to maintain close ties with the Afghan government. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, explained that in both countries, the presence of American troops gave him and the senior military commander a reason and purpose to request frequent meetings with the head of the government. A smaller force would mean less influence, but a sustained presence has myriad potential benefits that would disappear if American troops were gone. “I’ve said it before – the very best exit strategy is not to have an exit strategy,” Crocker told TIME, “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run.”
Crocker served as the lead negotiator in the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, which, in the end, he negotiated directly with the mercurial Afghan leader. Crocker believes the U.S. can prevail in securing an agreement. “It’s going to take sustained, high level engagement and an understanding of where Karzai is coming from,” Crocker says.
If Karzai sticks to his word, then the best hope may be for a signed agreement with the next Afghan president. If that is the case, the military will have a more difficult time planning and resourcing a larger residual force, but they should be able to execute the mission. Regardless of the size of that force, allowing high level officials a reason and method to remain engaged with the Afghan government may be the last small victory as the U.S. ends a long and arduous war.