President Obama is readying a contingency plan that would have the U.S. withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by year's end.
The administration says the plan is being prepared as a response to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's continued refusal to sign a binding security agreement between the two countries. Obama called Karzai on Tuesday to inform him of the contingency plan.
If Karzai were to sign the security agreement, it would pave the way for a small contingent of troops — possibly around 10,000 — to remain in the country past the deadline for the end of combat operations this year. That "limited" mission would be focused on training, advising, and assisting local forces and pursuing the remnants of al-Qaida, the White House said in a statement about Obama's call with Karzai.
But after more than a year of negotiations on the pact and resounding support for Karzai's signature from a council of Afghan tribal elders, the outgoing Afghan president made an unexpected course change by insisting the agreement wait until after his successor is elected in April.
"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 statement said.
The administration is leaving open the possibility that the agreement will be signed later this year.
"However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission," the statement said. "Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is headed off to Brussels to discuss Afghanistan at a conference of NATO's defense ministers, strongly supports Obama's decision. "This is a prudent step given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement," Hagel said.
As Washington pushed Karzai to sign the pact, Pentagon officials insisted they need the clarity from a lasting agreement to deal with the serious logistical hurdles of both planning a follow-up mission to the Afghanistan War, such as coordinating with allies and keeping the right infrastructure in the country — or, alternatively, withdrawing troops and equipment from the country safely if the agreement is not signed.
Hagel stressed that the Pentagon would continue planning for U.S. troops to participate in a NATO-led mission in the country. "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," he said.