US President Barack Obama has told the Pentagon to prepare for the possibility that no US troops will be left in Afghanistan due to Afghan President Hamad Karzai’s refusal to sign a joint security agreement.
Washington had said that after its formal drawdown of troops from the war-torn country by year’s end, it could leave a contingent of as many as 8,000 for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda targets and to train Afghan forces.
However, Karzai’s refusal to sign a deal has frustrated the White House, which has been forced to abandon an earlier demand that he sign the pact in weeks, not months.
“Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” the White House said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Obama told Karzai during a telephone call that he had given the order to the Pentagon, the White House said. The call was the first substantive discussion the two leaders have had since June last year.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is carrying Washington’s modified position to Brussels for a meeting with NATO defense ministers that began yesterday.
“Every time a day goes by, our options narrow as to what options we have,” Hagel told reporters shortly before flying to Brussels.
The US has about 33,600 troops in Afghanistan and is withdrawing the force in line with Obama’s vow to largely end a 12-year mission that was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.
Staking out its new position, the White House’s statement said: “We will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA [bilateral security agreement] later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any US mission.”
The longer both countries go without a security deal, “the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition,” the statement added.
Hagel said he would not be discussing firm deadlines while in Brussels, adding that planning for what is known as “the zero option” is a prudent step given that Karzai has made clear he is unlikely to sign the security deal.
The Afghan president has suggested that any security deal could wait until after the country holds elections scheduled for April.
“As the United States military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO,” Hagel said in a statement.
A senior government official from Pakistan predicted dire consequences if Washington withdraws completely.
“In my opinion, [the] zero option should not be an option. In my opinion, [the] zero option means civil war in Afghanistan,” the official told reporters in Washington.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance’s headquarters was aware of Obama’s statement.
NATO officials and diplomats have in recent days played down Kabul’s delay in signing the deal.
“We will continue to develop our planning and assess the political and security conditions, so that we can take the appropriate decisions at the right time,” the NATO official said.