President Barack Obama did Tuesday what he had to – bluntly warn Afghan President Hamid Karzai that without a security deal, all U.S. troops could leave Afghanistan by the end of the year.
A measured pullout would be more likely to prevent Taliban and al-Qaida forces from reasserting control in the region and is in the best interests of both nations. Just such a withdrawal has already been negotiated by the U.S. and Karzai.
Under the negotiated security agreement, as many as 10,000 of the 33,600 American troops still in Afghanistan would stay past 2014 to train the Afghan military and conduct counterterrorism operations. The agreement was approved by his handpicked council of tribal elders, but Karzai then refused to sign it until after the scheduled April 5 election to pick a new president. He is not standing for re-election and Afghan voters will choose from among 11 candidates.
Without the agreement, there would be a mass exodus. Such a withdrawal – instead of a smooth U.S. withdrawal – could present significant danger to the American military. Just consider the ongoing carnage in Iraq, America’s other post-9/11 war.
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Karzai is at the very least enigmatic and often downright confounding. He was once an ally of the Taliban and recently called them his “brothers” in speaking with the Telegraph of London. He has seemed to delight in goading the White House, though he owes his power and fortune to its backing. He has accused U.S. forces of colluding with the Taliban, without real evidence. But earlier this month, his regime released dangerous militants from prison over the strenuous objections of the U.S. military.
We fully understand why Obama’s patience with Karzai has all but run out. In a 12-year relationship, the Afghan leader has never appeared to be a willing partner for U.S. counterterrorism objectives. As he told NBC News in December, “I don’t trust (the U.S.) and they don’t trust me.”
In his interview with the Telegraph earlier this week, he said, “I saw no good” in the U.S. presence in his nation, despite the fact our troops protected his presidency and ousted the Taliban from Kabul, its capital.
Tuesday, Obama told Karzai by phone that he has ordered the Pentagon to put together the “zero option” to withdraw all troops. The White House said the longer there’s no deal, the fewer U.S. troops are likely to stay.
It’s also understandable that the public has grown tired of the long war in Afghanistan. For the first time since it started in October 2001, a Gallup poll found as many Americans saying that U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as saying it was not.
But we must recall that the 9/11 attacks were launched from the mountains of Afghanistan. The regime in power at the time not only welcomed Osama bin Laden, it hid him, supported him and defied American requests to expel him. And finally, we have to remember the sacrifice of so many Americans – nearly 2,200 killed, including two from Stanislaus County and one each from Merced, Tuolumne and south San Joaquin counties.
It is in our national interest to have an agreement for a small U.S. force to ensure there can be no return to a government that welcomes and protects terrorists.
If Karzai won’t do the right thing, Obama has to hope the next Afghan president will.