WASHINGTON: The United States hopes to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 but Kabul’s future security could hinge on the US Congress’s willingness to keep bankrolling the mission, analysts say.
The departure from power of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who leaves office after elections Saturday, should pave the way for Washington to forge an agreement over US troops with his successor.
Karzai angered the US last year after refusing to ink an agreed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which would see around 10,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan after this year on a training and counter-terrorism mission. In the absence of the BSA, the US is preparing to withdraw its forces en masse, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
“As instructed by the President we’re planning for a complete withdrawal, should we not be able to have the BSA,” Kirby said. “But it’s not the outcome anybody wants.”
President Barack Obama has so far not taken any decision about a US military presence in Afghanistan or what it would like, he added.
Washington has been lobbying Kabul relentlessly to sign the accord since November, warning that every delay complicates the logistical details of a withdrawal and erodes the confidence of Afghans. “I would assess that the risk of an orderly withdrawal begins to be high in September,” General Joe Dunford, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan said last month. Dunford’s assessment came at a sparsely attended Senate hearing which reflected the waning significance of Afghanistan as an issue in American political life.
“One observation — the room is almost empty,” Senator Lindsey Graham remarked. “General, I remember when all these rows were full with people carrying bags and hanging on every word about Afghanistan.”
The United States believes any of the presidential candidates contesting Afghan polls on Saturday will be easier to deal with than Karzai, according to former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann.
“They’re all reasonable people that we could work with,” Neumann said. Each of the candidates has backed the BSA.
Maintaining a US presence will depend primarily on whether the elections are seen as fair and whether any incoming government is viewed as legitimate, experts say. “If there’s rampant fraud, there’s a failure to negotiate a representative outcome, you could see political support in the United States and in other countries for continuing to provide assistance to Afghanistan plummet,” said Michele Flournoy, formed Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. “That would put whatever Afghan government resulted in a crisis situation, fighting for its survival. “The bottom line is that our Congress cares very much about the legitimacy and the credibility of the government that we provide assistance and support to,” she added.
Congress, which controls the purse strings, has already started to rumble over Afghanistan. In February, lawmakers slashed the 2014 budget for US development assistance to Afghanistan by 50 percent, to $1.12 billion.The United States is already footing most of the bill for Afghanistan’s 352,000-strong armed forces, paying $5.7 billion of the $6.5 billion cost in 2013, noted Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
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