President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will discuss the roles and missions of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the war "ends" in 2014, but they will not decide or announce the number of U.S. troops to stay there, top White House officials said Tuesday.
Karzai is already in Washington but won't have his official meetings until Jan. 10 and 11 at the State Department and the White House, respectively. Today, Karzai is visiting his spy chief, Asadullah Khalid, at an undisclosed American hospital. On Jan. 10, he'll visit the State Department, where he will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attend a working dinner. On Jan. 11, he'll visit the White House, sit down with Obama, attend a working lunch, and then participate in a joint press conference.
"This week's visit comes at a critical moment for the two presidents to take stock on where we are in the transition and then to provide guidance going forward on a host of issues," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on a conference call today. "As we look to 2013, reductions in U.S. troops will continue, but they will be guided by the transition that the two leaders agree upon. Similarly, just as we'll be discussing the 2013 transition, the two leaders will be discussing any potential support for Afghanistan from the United States beyond 2014."
The negotiations over the agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence past 2014 began last November and are being led on the U.S. side by Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Warlick. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy has said that the State Department would need U.S. military troops in Afghanistan to protect the department and help it well past 2014 in a range of areas.
"Rather than developing our own capabilities, we will be depending on DOD support for functions such as a quick reaction force, personnel recovery, fuel support, explosive ordinance disposal, and medical assistance, by 2015," Kennedy said in October.
But Rhodes described the nature of the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan as more limited, and he even said there's a possibility there will be no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 at all.
"The nature of U.S. support for Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be focused on two precise missions, training and equipping of Afghan security forces and continued efforts on the counterterrorism front against al Qaeda and their affiliates," said Rhodes. "But this is not a visit during which President Obama will be making decisions about U.S. troop levels in the immediate future or beyond 2014. It's a visit where the two leaders will be able to consult about those issues, and then in the coming months President Obama will be able to make those decisions in consultation with his national security team."
NSC Deputy National Security Advisor Doug Lute said that the Obama-Karzai discussions will focus on the authorities, privileges, and immunities that the Afghan government might afford U.S. troops after 2014. The immunities issue is crucial because the White House cited the lack of immunities for U.S. troops in Iraq as a key reason negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence there failed in 2011.
The Cable asked Rhodes and Lute if the U.S. government would require immunities for U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be approved by the Afghan legislature, considering that the Obama administration demanded legislative approval for immunities in the Iraq case. Rhodes and Lute declined to answer.
Rhodes and Lute also declined to confirm or deny the Fox News report that claimed outgoing ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen has submitted three recommended options for U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan post-2014, none of which would leave more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers there.
"The way the president approaches this is not aiming to keep a certain number of troops within Afghanistan," Rhodes said. "The objective of the bilateral security agreement negotiations is not to accomplish a number of U.S. troops in the country; it is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan national security forces. And there are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve U.S. troops, some of which might not."
"They're going to be talking about missions and authorities, not numbers," said Lute.
The officials will also discuss the ongoing talks among the Karzai government, the Pakistani government, and the Afghan Taliban, which are meant to pave the way for peace talks to end the war. Both officials downplayed any notion that increased Pakistani involvement means a decreased role for the United States, and they said the process must be Afghan-led.
The Cable also asked the officials if they were still working on the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier currently in the custody of the Taliban. The administration had been working on a deal to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders who are being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Those negotiations broke down last March and as of October were going nowhere, according to senior Afghan officials.
"Sergeant Bergdahl's release and safe return to his family is one of the objectives of our approach to try to get into peace talks with the Afghan Taliban," said Lute. "And these are talks that we imagine to be led by the Afghan government. So, yes, his safe return is one objective, but there are a whole list of other objectives as well that have to do with the logic of getting Afghans to talk to Afghans about the future of the country."
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.