WASHINGTON — Contradicting a White House statement last month, the top U.S. military official said Afghan President Hamid Karzai can continue to delay signing an agreement on a post-2014 U.S. military presence until as late as June.
Even if Karzai refuses to sign until midyear, the U.S. military would have time to withdraw what’s expected to be about 34,000 U.S. troops by then, down from the current level of 46,000, in an orderly fashion, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday.
“We’re not the limiting factor,” Dempsey said at a press conference at the Pentagon. “Nothing is irreversible, but we wouldn’t be to a level where we’d begin to affect the options until probably early summer,” he said.
Dempsey’s comments followed remarks on Dec. 3 by Secretary of State John Kerry that he has no “hard, fixed, specific” deadline for signing the agreement. Both statements were at odds with comments from White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Carney said in Washington Nov. 22 that Karzai needs to act “before the end of the year” because “it is just untenable — impossible really” for the U.S. and allies “to plan for a potential post-2014 military presence” without concluding an agreement before year’s end.
Two other administration officials said Wednesday that Carney’s comments overstated how much time the military needs to plan for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
One of the officials said Carney’s comments prompted some officials in the State and Defense Departments to worry that the White House might be giving Karzai an artificial deadline to create a reason to make an early exit from an increasingly unpopular war in a congressional election year.
Dempsey said that instead of affecting the military’s withdrawal plans, a delay in signing the agreement has the more immediate effect of damping the confidence of Afghan military personnel “as they begin to be anxious, literally, about whether we’re going to be there to support them.”
“So it really needs to be done now, mostly because what’s hanging in the balance in Afghanistan is confidence,” Dempsey said. “The Afghan security forces are very capable, but they’re not confident.”
Afghan tribal elders have endorsed a security pact with the U.S. that would allow a follow-up mission aimed at training and counterterrorism missions by U.S. special operations forces.
Karzai has continued to raise objections about military operations that he says put Afghan civilians at risk. He also has suggested that he may not be ready to sign the accord until after Afghanistan’s election to choose his successor as president in April.
Both U.S. officials, who have years of experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia, said they’re discounting what they called Karzai’s theatrics, which they said are intended in part to demonstrate his independence from the United States.
They also said they expect him to sign the agreement sometime in the first half of next year because he knows that his forces can’t maintain security in Afghanistan with international training, logistics, intelligence, and other support.
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