U.S. at odds with Afghanistan over the post-withdrawal mission

WASHINGTON — Closed-door negotiations to determine the American military mission in Afghanistan after 2014 have stalled over U.S. demands to conduct lethal counter-terrorism operations and Afghan insistence that Washington guarantee support in event of cross-border attacks.

President Hamid Karzai is balking at Obama administration demands that U.S. special operations troops and the CIA be allowed to capture or even kill suspected terrorists after most U.S. troops close out America’s longest war at the end of next year, according to officials familiar with the negotiations.

The U.S. team, in turn, is refusing to include written promises to come to Afghanistan’s aid if it is attacked by militants from neighboring Pakistan or elsewhere after the withdrawal. A formal U.S. defense commitment could require Congress to vote on the agreement, a course the White House is determined to avoid given the bitter partisan climate in Washington.

With both sides still at odds after months of haggling, Obama administration officials are increasingly skeptical they can complete a deal this month, as the White House had wanted.

Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi told reporters last week in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that the disputes over independent U.S. operations and security guarantees have become potential “deal breakers.”


“We find it to be something that will definitely undermine our sovereignty if we allow U.S. forces to have the right to conduct unilateral military operations,” Faizi said.

Officials said President Obama hopes to use his State of the Union speech early next year to announce how many U.S. troops will stay behind and for what mission. Without a signed security pact, the United States and its allies will maintain little, if any, military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Pentagon plans to train Afghan soldiers and police to withstand the still potent Taliban-led insurgency may be abandoned or dramatically downsized, said the officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

The Obama administration withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 after similar talks with the government in Baghdad collapsed over Iraq’s refusal to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops. The country has recently suffered a resurgence of suicide bombings and other lethal violence.

U.S. officials in Afghanistan are more hopeful than their colleagues in Washington that a deal is still possible. But they fear that the longer the standoff drags on, the more likely the talks will collapse, as in Iraq.

About 52,000 U.S. troops still serve in Afghanistan, about half the total of two years ago. The force is expected to shrink to 34,000 by spring and to decrease sharply after that. Afghan forces have assumed a much larger role in combat operations, and the number of bases staffed by U.S. and foreign troops has fallen to 90 from more than 800.

Security remains tenuous across much of the country, although Afghan troops in most cases have managed to hold up against insurgent attacks. U.S. military commanders say the Afghans will need additional training and equipment after 2014, however.

Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has privately backed deploying more than 13,000 U.S. troops. The White House is believed to be in favor of about 7,000 troops, along with several thousand special operations troops to conduct counter-terrorism raids, an official said.

If a deal is reached, Pentagon planners are considering a “Kabul-centric strategy” that would limit U.S. troops to training and assisting Afghan security forces only in the capital and surrounding provinces.

Securing Kabul and its periphery would ensure survival for Karzai’s government. But it could allow parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops fought and died for years, to slip back into insurgent control. Partly for that reason, the Kabul option is not Dunford’s preferred choice.

Planners also are looking at a regional option under which the Pentagon would deploy troops in the east and south to help Afghan security forces, and would conduct limited combat operations on their own. But it is unclear whether the White House would agree to supply more troops and money after the withdrawal.

Karzai long has vacillated between wanting the U.S. military to stay and to provide billions of dollars in aid, and wanting to be seen as the builder of a new Afghanistan that controls its own territory without foreign interference. He has pressed to restrict U.S. military raids and CIA activities, and is pushing for limits on U.S. operations to be written into the draft agreement.

The Afghan president, whose term ends next year, also has been critical of U.S.-led foreign troops, even saying that Afghan security will become easier after their departure.

“Withdrawing of their forces from Afghanistan will be good for us,” Karzai said during a meeting in India in May. “We believe there will be more peace in Afghanistan when they leave. We believe those attacking Afghanistan will find it hard to attack.”

Afghan officials are pushing for an agreement that commits the U.S. military to come to their aid if the country is invaded or suffers “aggression” from foreign-based militant groups or insurgents. U.S. negotiators are resisting that kind of treaty-like guarantee because it might require congressional approval.

American officials say they need latitude to conduct raids against suspected terrorists without getting Afghan permission, though they insist such raids would be rare and only against targets that pose a threat to the U.S. or its interests.

Karzai “is worried that if we want to pick up somebody and it’s not coordinated properly” there could be firefights with Afghan security forces and complaints from tribal elders about American raids on their homes, a U.S. official said.

The CIA flies missile-firing drone aircraft from Afghan territory into Pakistan to strike suspected terrorists and militants, a practice that Washington would like to continue, one of the officials said. U.S. officials also want to hold Afghan suspects that U.S. forces pick up for questioning, another area of friction with Karzai’s government.