The Cable

State Department official: Negotiations to extend U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan starting soon

Despite statements by Vice President Joe Biden, the State Department is about to begin formal negotiations over the extension of U.S. troops past 2014, a top State Department official said Tuesday.

Last week, U.S. and Afghan negotiators met in Kabul to talk about the Bilateral Security Agreement that will govern the extension of U.S. troops past 2014, when President Barack Obama said the combat mission in Afghanistan will end and the U.S. will complete the transition of the entire country to Afghan government control.

Also last week, Biden told Americans during his Oct. 11 debate with Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan that U.S. troops were leaving Afghanistan by 2014.

"We are leaving in 2014, period, and in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion," Biden said. "We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's."

Marc Grossman, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, explained today that's not the whole story.

Grossman said Tuesday that the point of the upcoming negotiations is to agree on an extension of the U.S. troop presence well past 2014, for the purposes of conducting counterterrorism operations and training and advising the Afghan security forces.

In May, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that promised an ongoing U.S. commitment to Afghanistan through 2024. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Oct. 3 that Grossman's deputy, James Warlick, will be the lead U.S. negotiator for the Bilateral Security Agreement that will follow. Karzai's Ambassador to Washington Eklil Hakimi will lead the negotiations for the Afghan side.

Grossman said that while meetings on "how we will manage our forces going forward in Afghanistan," have already taken place, formal negotiations have not yet begun. Once the negotiations formally start, the Bilateral Security Agreement must be completed within one year, according to the Strategic Partnership agreement, Grossman explained.

Some U.S. military officials have said the plan is to keep 25,000 American troops in Afghanistan past 2014, but Grossman insisted that there is no number yet and the 25,000 figure quoted in reports is speculative. NATO announced Monday that it will also keep international troops in Afghanistan past 2014 alongside U.S. troops, not for combat but strictly for the mission of training and advising the Afghans.

Grossman was speaking on a panel at the annual summit of the International Stability Operations Association in Washington. Also on the panel was Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who said that the State Department would need U.S. military troops in Afghanistan to protect them and help them well past 2014.

"Rather than developing our own capabilities, we will be depending on DOD support for functions such as a quick reaction force, personnel recovery, fuel support, explosive ordnance disposal, and medical assistance, by 2015," Kennedy said.

The Cable also asked Kennedy why he testified in a hearing last week that he was "inclined" to support the requests for more security in Libya before the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Kennedy declined to comment.

The Cable

Senators: The buck stops with Obama, not Clinton, on Benghazi

Even though U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she bears responsibility for the security failures in Benghazi, three GOP senators said late Monday that they still believe that President Barack Obama, not Clinton, should be held to account.

On Monday in Lima, Peru, Clinton said that the buck stops with her when it comes to diplomatic security decisions abroad. She was backing up Vice President Joe Biden, who said at last week's debate that "we" weren't aware of requests for more security in Libya prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The White House later clarified that when Biden says "we" he only speaks for him and the president.

"I take responsibility," Clinton said. "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They're the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision."

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) have been criticizing the administration for its statements on the Benghazi attack, especially U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, who said on Sept. 16 that based on the best information available at that time, the attack appeared to be a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam YouTube video.

Clinton's attempt to claim responsibility was "laudable" but doesn't absolve Obama and the White House of their responsibilities, the senators said, both for the security failures surrounding the attack and for the statements made by White House officials afterward.

"We must remember that the events of September 11 were preceded by an escalating pattern of attacks this year in Benghazi, including a bomb that was thrown into our Consulate in April, another explosive device that was detonated outside of our Consulate in June, and an assassination attempt on the British Ambassador," they said.

"If the President was truly not aware of this rising threat level in Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national security team, whose responsibility it is to keep the President informed. But if the President was aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of September 11, 2012, then he bears full responsibility for any security failures that occurred. The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief. The buck stops there."