For months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, causing mounting frustration within the White House and the Pentagon. Now, it appears as if President Obama and his advisers have finally outfoxed Karzai, marking the end of a long and tumultuous relationship.
The White House and DOD have decided not to make any agreement until after April’s presidential elections in which Karzai is not expected to be a candidate. They’ll only make a deal with Karzai’s successor, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, and will no longer deal with the current Afghan president.
“If he's not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him," a senior U.S. official told the Journal. "It's a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the (deal) and that he doesn't represent the voice of the Afghan people.
At first glance, it might seem as if delaying the plan is a bad deal. First, it shows that they refuse to deal with Karzai because he has frustrated the Americans so much -- something he’s been eager to do and has taken pride in. Second, it makes the window to craft a long-term security deal much smaller, as the Pentagon and the next Afghan president will only have four months between the election and the planned American troop withdrawal at the end of next summer. And third, because the government and the Afghan people want at least some American troops and dollars to stay, it almost guarantees that the United States will have a residual force in the country for quite some time.
For those who believe that a small American force is necessary to keep any of the gains made in more than a decade of war, the decision to remove Karzai from the picture is a cunning one, according to Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Institute.
“The administration is very wise to continue with the military planning and to adopt a strategy of simply ignoring Karzai. In two months he is going to be replaced by a new government, and most of the candidates have expressed interest in the Americans keeping a residual force,” she said. “The administration has recognized that it can’t allow its strategy in Afghanistan to be derailed by Karzai.”
Lesson from Iraq
Last month, it appeared as if the White House was on the verge of employing the zero option - leaving completely at the end of the summer. This option was on the table in late January, and would save the United States at least $111 billion.
But Curtis said that the chaos in Iraq is likely what compelled the White House to come up with an option other than ditching Afghanistan completely. The Americans left Iraq in 2011, and in the three years since then, the country has devolved into chaos. Al Qaeda has used this chaos to mount a comeback there, recently taking the city of Fallujah. The White House does not want the same thing to happen in Afghanistan.
“Iraq probably has had an impact on White House thinking. They can’t afford to have Afghanistan implode in the same way,” Curtis said. “There is a recognition that this is bad for national security interests. The White House is starting to recognize it can’t afford to have Afghanistan go the same way.”
The plan to deal with Karzai’s successor is not without risk. First, it assumes a peaceful transfer of power and a clear winner in the Afghan election. Considering the country never has had a peaceful transfer of power, it’s not safe to assume that one clear victor will emerge.
It also assumes that Karzai allows the election to go on as planned. In a recent interview Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the election in April is likely just the start of the contest. “We may be talking about June or September before we know who the next president is,” he said.
Ruben also warned that the assassination of a candidate -- an event that’s common in Afghanistan -- could allow Karzai to scrap the election all together. However, given Karzai’s unwillingness to engage with the Obama administration, making a deal with Karzai’s successor might be the best bet.
“We’re just waiting him out. The U.S. will move forward with military planning and this put us in a position where, if the [security agreement] is signed at the end of the summer, we’ll be able to retain a residual presence,” Curtis said. “If the [agreement] is not signed by the end of the summer, we’ll be in a position where we can do a complete withdrawal by the end of the year.”
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