NEW YORK - The US military has made revisions to plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan that would allow the Obama administration to wait until President Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security deal and deciding on a military presence after 2014, according to a major American newspaper.
Karzai has delayed signing a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would allow some a small number of troops to stay in the country after NATO combat troops withdraw. The revised military option reflects frustration in Washington about the prospects of getting Karzai to sign the deal, The Wall Street Journal said in a report from Washington.
“If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” a senior US official was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the BSA and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.” The military has been pushing to keep up to 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but the White House has said that President Barack Obama won’t leave any American forces in Afghanistan unless Karzai signs.
According to the Journal, the revised military drawdown schedule is based on a plan the Defence Department presented to the White House in January that would keep 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 at a limited number of bases. The new plan would draw down those troops in two years, with the goal of removing all American troops by the end of the Obama administration except for military personnel who would work in a defence office at the US Embassy in Kabul, the Journal reported.
Senior US officials told the newspaper the revised drawdown plan would allow the military to accommodate a presidential order to keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or an order to pull all of the troops out by year-end.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the incoming No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan, said over the weekend that his immediate focus is on supporting upcoming Afghan elections — not on the possibility of US troops remaining after the NATO-led combat mission ends.
Anderson, the new commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, acknowledged at a handover ceremony on Saturday that the uncertainty around the security deal gives him a “little bit of pause” but is ultimately a “longer term issue.” Afghanistan’s presidential election is slated for April 5, but with no single candidate expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round looks likely, meaning a new government is unlikely to take office before August, according to the Journal.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said there has been no change in the Pentagon’s position that the security accord should be signed “as soon as possible,” adding, “Otherwise we are going to have to start planning for a complete withdrawal.” But a senior US official said the goal is to provide the White House with the flexibility to wait out Mr Karzai’s term if he refuses to sign the agreement.
“Our job is to be able to provide options,” the official said. “This maintains flexibility should Karzai take a pass on the BSA. But that is not the desired outcome.”
AFP adds from Kabul: Afghanistan on Tuesday said it would press ahead with the release of scores of alleged Taliban fighters from jail despite US objections that the men were a threat to NATO and Afghan forces.
Kabul announced on January 9 that a total of 72 detainees held at Bagram jail near the capital would be freed due to lack of evidence, sparking strong condemnation from the United States.
Afghan authorities “concluded that the there is no evidence against 72 out of 88 prisoners. We reviewed their cases again after objections by the US forces, and for now we will release 65 prisoners,” Abdul Shukur Dadras from the Afghan government body reviewing detainees at Bagram said on Tuesday.
“These 65 inmates... will be released as soon as early next week,” he told AFP. The issue threatens to further strain US-Afghan relations amid pressure for the two countries to sign a long-delayed security deal allowing some American soldiers to stay in the country after 2014.
In a statement, US forces in Afghanistan said the prisoners were a “legitimate force protection concern” for both Afghan and international forces fighting a bloody Taliban-led insurgency since late 2001.
“The release of these detainees is a major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
Bagram was the main detention centre housing Taliban and other insurgents captured by the Western military forces until it was transferred to Afghan control last year.