Afghan President Hamid Karzai headed to Washington for talks with US officials about American engagement in his country. The most important issue is what happens after 2014 when international forces withdraw.
The Americans have two self-imposed tasks in Afghanistan after 2014: "training and equipping of Afghan security forces and continued efforts on the counterterrorism front against al Qaeda and its affiliates," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy security adviser, said in a conference call with journalists this week. The discussion in the US centers around how many of the currently 68,000 US troops will then be needed for these tasks, once the "transfer of responsibility" has taken place and most of the US and international troops have left the country.
Rhodes said that a complete withdrawal of US forces has also not been ruled out: "The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of X number of troops in Afghanistan." But the Defense Department is cautious. At a press conference on Thursday Defense Secretary Leon Panetta refused to speculate about numbers. There are different scenarios, he said, but they had not yet been presented to the President, who therefore had not yet made a decision.
No definite troop figures
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets on Friday with his US counterpart Barack Obama, there will be an official joint statement, but it will not include specific figures. But if Americans restrict themselves to training the Afghan army and the fight against terrorism, 3,000-5,000 soldiers would be sufficient, said Lt.-Gen. David W. Barno, from 2003 to 2005 the commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. "We are talking, I think in most scenarios here, of something in the thousands, not in the tens of thousands," Barno, who is now with the Center for a New American Security, said in an interview with DW.
Barno pointed out that not only the logistical, but also the financial support of the Afghan troops is necessary to keep them functioning. If the international community makes the funds available, he said, he is very confident that the Afghans will be able to ensure the country's security, even after 2014. Currently, there are approximately 352,000 Afghan security forces, and an estimated 30,000 Taliban fighters. "There are ten Afghan security forces - army, soldiers or policemen - for every single Taliban fighter. So in my estimation, in any calculus I am familiar with, that should be more than adequate with the amount of resources and the training and the equipment they've been given over the last several years."
Immunity for U.S. soldiers a precondition
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is also confident. Progress has been made in the fight against the Taliban, he said, but also in terms of the society in Afghanistan, education and health of the citizens. "Is it everything we want? No," he said, continuing: "Is it everything that we would hope they would be able to achieve in this timeframe? Not yet."
But the development is going in the right direction, he said, and within the next two years, until the withdrawal of most U.S. and coalition forces, there is the opportunity to complete the mission successfully; in other words, to hand the country over to the Afghans.
Panetta said he had spoken with Karzai for an hour on Thursday and was "satisfied" with the conversation. In the evening, the Afghan president then met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Friday he has an appointment with President Obama. Their conversation will not just be about the number of troops, but other details of the bilateral security agreement, that will be adopted by November this year at the latest. An important topic is immunity for U.S. soldiers. "Immunity for American troops from Afghan law, I would expect that is going to be a deal breaker in Afghanistan, just like it was in Iraq," Barno said. "I think the US has been pretty open and transparent with that as an expectation." The US government makes no secret of this demand.
Stable Afghan government essential
But just as important as the military situation, Barno said, is a stable political transition with free and fair presidential elections in April 2014. Afghanistan's future cannot depend only on the commitment of the Americans: "After ten years of tremendous international support [the Afghans] have to take responsibility for their own government in its transition coming up and take responsibility for the conflict they are in with the Taliban."
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Afghanistan researcher at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, also says that too much is being discussed about troop numbers. "If the Afghan government can truly be stable it not only needs to have the fighting capacity, but it also needs to be legitimate." But given the ongoing corruption it is currently difficult to imagine how the Karzai government could achieve this legitimacy without significant improvements, she said in an interview with DW.
Here, too, the US government is being asked to do everything to prevent a collapse of the Afghan government. This means, besides robust military support "that focuses on how the Afghan military can be sustained and preserved, to focus on ethnic and patronage rifts in the Afghan army," she said, adding that the military had "strong leverage to improve governance in Afghanistan." Even small steps are helpful, such as distancing itself from corrupt members of the government, said Felbab-Brown.
Deadline end of 2014
Felbab-Brown also called for better coordination among coalition countries, such as Britain and Germany, working to start negotiations with the Taliban. "If the deal is structured in an extremely narrow way, essentially bargaining with the Taliban over parts of Afghanistan, then I think it would be very bad for the Afghan people." The agreement must be part of a larger social reconciliation, and mechanisms must be put in place to draw the Taliban and the Afghan government to account for developments in society.
But all these negotiations are a race against time, because after 2014 there will be no turning back, Felbab-Brown said: "If we see some major collapse after 2014, say in 2015, at that point I do not see how the US public or even the US government would be able to find the weight of it all to come back with any reinforcements or military or political engagements." If the security situation deteriorates dramatically, it will very quickly bring pressure to cut the last remaining ties to Afghanistan.