US looks past Karzai to post-election Afghan security accord
A billboard for Afghan presidential candidate Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Nangarhar province, was one of many billboards and posters put up in Kabul on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, as the presidential campaign officially began.
WASHINGTON — The United States is looking beyond Afghan President Hamid Karzai to signing a security agreement with his successor, even as support in Congress slips and intelligence officials warn that the Taliban may retake some territory won by Afghan forces.
Frustrated by Karzai's failure to meet several U.S. deadlines for concluding a bilateral security accord that would keep U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan after December, the U.S. is now focused on ensuring that Afghan presidential elections scheduled for April go as planned, current and former U.S. officials said.
While some American intelligence officials and lawmakers think Afghanistan is unraveling and the U.S. should pull out, the situation is not as dire and the Obama administration should look beyond Karzai and focus on the elections, said Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon policy official who's now a senior adviser at the Boston Consulting Group.
"The most important event happening with regard to Afghanistan are the elections," Flournoy said in an interview. "They will be the first peaceful transition of power in the country's history," she said, adding that all 11 candidates to succeed Karzai support a continued U.S. military presence and favor signing the security agreement.
Concerned about security during the election, as well as possible delays in the next president taking office, the U.S. military is assisting Afghan security forces in safeguarding the nationwide vote, one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
After President Obama's top aides, including Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, signaled that they would favor pulling out all U.S. troops absent quick approval of the security agreement, the White House has faced criticism that it's seeking a rapid exit from Afghanistan in this congressional election year.
Obama intends to keep his pledge to have U.S. troops remain to continue training and advising the Afghans, as well as conducting targeted counterterrorism operations, said another U.S. official involved in planning for post-2014 Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The preponderance of opinion," including at the White House, State Department and Pentagon, "is to follow through on our commitment to Afghanistan" with a troop presence beyond 2014, said Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy, the number-three post, until 2012 and left to campaign for Obama's re-election. She's now affiliated with the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a non-profit group that favors a continued U.S. presence.
In an indication that Afghanistan still needs international military support, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lt. General Michael Flynn told Congress Tuesday that the 340,000-strong Afghan security forces, which include army and police units, are struggling to improve their combat capability as foreign troops pull back.
Afghan forces have "shown progress in their ability to clear insurgents from contested areas but have exhibited problems holding cleared areas long-term," Flynn said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee.
Waiting for an agreement until after the Afghan elections could mean a long wait, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing.
With 11 candidates and none demonstrating a clear lead yet, the election may result in a "run-off of some sort, or one or more run-offs to actually come up with an elected president." The election and its aftermath "could be a very prolonged process," he said.
International attention on election security is critical because under the Afghan constitution if a candidate is killed during the campaign or before results are announced, new elections must be held, said David Sedney, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia and now affiliated with the same Afghan group as Flournoy.
U.S.-Karzai relations, already at a low point because of his accusations against the U.S. and shifting conditions, are threatening to get worse as the Afghan leader prepared to release as early as Wednesday 65 prisoners the U.S. calls dangerous.
In response to the planned release, Sen, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who backs a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan, called for halting development aid until after the elections as a way to express displeasure with Karzai for refusing to heed American protests over freeing the prisoners.
At the same hearing, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who heads the Senate Armed Services committee and also favors a U.S. role in Afghanistan, expressed frustration with Karzai, who he said has "made a series of statements so inflammatory that they are undermining public support in the United States for continuing efforts in Afghanistan."
The U.S. and its allies need to look beyond Karzai to the broad Afghan public opinion that favors a continued American and international troop presence, said Mahmoud Saikal, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister and now the convener of an Afghanistan policy group under the aegis of the Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung, a Berlin-based nonprofit.
In meetings last week with U.S. officials from the State Department, the White House National Security Council and lawmakers, Saikal and a group of former officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan asked for patience, Saikal said in a phone interview from Kabul.
"We do understand that every day that the signing" of the agreement is delayed, "the Afghan people and international community are paying a huge price," Saikal said. "In Kabul on a daily basis we see a flight of capital and business going down."
The absence of an agreement is hurting Afghanistan's economy, politics and security, Saikal said.
Afghanistan needs "$12 billion a year to function as a state, and of that our national revenue is only $2.3 billion," he said. "That's why the security agreement is not a matter of choice, but a matter of necessity," because in the absence of foreign troops, the international aid that supports Afghanistan and pays government salaries would stop.