Obama and Afghan President Hamid
Karzai met Friday at the White House, after which both leaders outlined the
several unanswered questions about the future of America's role in Afghanistan.
hosted Karzai for a bilateral meeting and a working lunch at the White House
Friday. Senior U.S. officials in attendance included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chief of Staff Jack Lew, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, Deputy Counsel Avril Haines, Deputy National Security
Advisor Doug Lute, Acting Special
Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
and NSC Senior Director Jeff Eggers.
After the lunch, at a Friday afternoon press
conference with Karzai, Obama announced that the two leaders had agreed to move
up the date when the final tranche of Afghan territory would be handed over to
the lead control of Afghan security forces. Previously, the plan had been to
hand over lead control for the entire country by mid-2013. As of Friday, the
plan is to meet that milestone this spring.
"Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans
when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring, our
troops will have a different mission -- training, advising, assisting Afghan
forces," Obama said. "It will be a historic moment and another step toward full
Afghan sovereignty, something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about,
as do the Afghan people."
Obama didn't specify whether that would allow U.S.
troops, 66,000 of which remain in Afghanistan, to come home any earlier or at
any more rapid pace. He said those announcements would be made "in the coming
"What that translates into precisely in terms of how
this drawdown of U.S. troops proceeds is something that isn't yet fully
determined," he said.
Obama also talked vaguely about the Bilateral
Security Agreement currently being negotiated between the two countries, which
is meant to set the terms for a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
But he declined to say how many troops would be needed for the post-2014
missions of targeted counterterrorism strikes against al Qaeda and training
Afghan security forces.
In fact, Obama didn't commit to keeping any troops
in Afghanistan post-2014 at all.
"I'm still getting recommendations from the Pentagon and our
commanders on the ground in terms of what that would look like. And when we
have more information about that, I will be describing that to the American
people," he said. "And if we have a follow-on force of any sort past 2014, it's
got to be at the invitation of the Afghan government, and they have to feel
comfortable with it."
In 2011, extensive
negotiations with the Iraqi government regarding an extension of U.S.
troops there failed largely due to the inability of the two sides to come to an
agreement on the issue of immunity for U.S. troops. Obama said Friday that the
immunity issue was a deal-breaker in Afghanistan as well.
"Nowhere do we have any kind of security agreement with a
country without immunity for our troops. You know, that's how I, as commander
in chief, can make sure that our folks are protected in carrying out very
difficult missions," he said. "I think it's fair to say that from my
perspective, at least, it will not be possible for us to have any kind of U.S.
troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are
operating there are in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another
U.S. troops in places like Japan, South Korea, and Italy aren't
completely immune from local prosecution. A top White House official told The Cable that every country is
different and so the immunities needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan might
not mirror those in other places.
"Each agreement is negotiated on its
own merits and reflects the circumstances and nature of the bilateral
relationship and the shared interests that the presence of U.S. forces
supports," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"We will negotiate to ensure that our personnel would have the authorities and
protections that they need to operate in Afghanistan should the president
decide so. As is true elsewhere around the world, U.S. forces in
Afghanistan are at all times subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military
did say he agreed with Karzai that the Taliban should be allowed to open up a
representative office in Qatar, from which the militant group can negotiate
with the Afghan government on peace and reconciliation.
in his remarks, said that the United States had agreed to implement the return
of all detention centers to Afghan government control in the very near future
-- a move he suggested would give him more wiggle room to negotiate immunity
for U.S. troops.
The United States has largely achieved its goals in
Afghanistan, Obama said, even if the country is not yet a fully functioning
democracy that is stable and secure.
"Have we achieved everything that some might have
imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. You know, this is
a human enterprise, and, you know, you fall short of the ideal," he said. "Did
we achieve our central goal, and have we been able, I think, to shape a strong
relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate
with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against
the United States? We have achieved that goal. We are in the process of
achieving that goal."
But independent analysts tend to doubt that Afghan
forces are ready to step up as U.S. troops stand down.
Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies told The Cable that the
transfer of responsibility that Obama and Karzai announced Friday comes well
before the Afghan security forces are able to actually do the job of securing
their own country.
"This transition is effectively an exercise in
political symbolism," he said. "What you are doing is putting people nominally
in charge regardless of whether they can operate on their own. These are ways
of pushing the Afghans to do more faster, but nobody should have any confusion
that the transfer of responsibility means that they are ready to do the job."
There's too much acceptance of the idea that the
352,000 Afghan security forces Obama talked about Friday are actually operational,
especially considering that about half are police forces working for a
dysfunctional and corrupt Afghan ministry of interior, Cordesman said.
Moreover, there's no plan to support and protect the U.S. diplomats and
development teams that will remain when most U.S. troops depart.
"Exactly what kind of aid capability will be left in
the field? Most civilian and NGO foreign aid workers are going to have to
leave," he said.
The Afghans are more dependent on U.S. money than on
U.S. troops, though Karzai said
last month -- and hinted again Friday -- that U.S. money is
what is corrupting Afghanistan, according to Cordesman.
"The Afghan economy and the Afghan government might
not hold together without very substantial amounts of economic aid," he said.