Monday, March 10, 2014
The Associated Press
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"We have a pretty clear understanding of, at what pace they must progress in order to — if it became necessary — to empty the (war) theater by the end of the year," Dempsey told the AP. He said they are nowhere near the point where the military couldn't make that decision and successfully get all troops and equipment out by Dec. 31.
Obama's announcement after his conversation with Karzai appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai's role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy U.S.-led war. The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, and with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
The White House insists it won't keep any American troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying in the country. While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement before that time, officials said the size and scope of any U.S. mission could shrink the longer Obama waits.
While Dempsey visited commanders, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met his NATO counterparts in Brussels this week. And NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the 19,000 troops from other countries would also pull out of Afghanistan after year's end without a security agreement.
"Let me stress, this is not our preferred option," Rasmussen said. "But these are the facts."
The U.S. and Afghanistan agreed to details of a security pact last year, and the agreement was also endorsed by a council of 3,000 Afghan tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga. But Karzai caught U.S. officials off guard by then declaring he wanted his successor to sign the agreement.
It's unclear whether Afghanistan's new president will be any more likely than Karzai to do so. There is no clear front-runner among the 11 candidates seeking to replace the president, who is constitutionally ineligible for a third term and has not endorsed a successor.
The longer the U.S. waits to decide on its future in Afghanistan, the more expensive and risky a full withdrawal would become. With less time to move troops and equipment, the military will have to fly assets out rather than use cheaper ground transportation.
The Pentagon's biggest challenge will be closing large military facilities, including the Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Shutting down a massive base typically takes about 10 months, but military officials said they are prepared to do it in a much shorter — although far more expensive — period if necessary. Military officials said commanders would still like to have about six months.
The Pentagon is currently planning to cut the total American force in Afghanistan to as low as 20,000 by midsummer, giving commanders the ability to pull all troops out by Dec. 31 if no agreement is reached. There are currently about 33,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.