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Obama hints at full Afghan pullout plans by year end

By Agencies in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2014-02-27 07:20

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday raised the possibility of complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, leaving the security of the central Asian country in the balance.

In a phone conversation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said Washington would move forward with "additional contingency planning" for an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year since Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement, which grants legal immunity to residual US troops.

But Obama left open the possibility of concluding the security pact with Afghanistan later this year, as a new Afghan president will emerge in elections slated for April.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Tuesday that the Pentagon will work to ensure that adequate plans are in place for an orderly withdrawal by the end of 2014.

In a statement, the Pentagon chief called the potential "zero option" a prudent step in face of Karzai's unwillingness to sign the security deal.

"As the US military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the US and NATO," Hagel said.

Obama hints at full Afghan pullout plans by year end

With no sign that Karzai will sign the agreement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama "has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014". However, he added that the US remains open to keeping troops in Afghanistan if an agreement can be signed later this year, likely after the April Afghan elections.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stressed the importance of a bilateral security pact between the US and Afghanistan.

He warned on Tuesday on his way to Afghanistan that time is running out and that there is a point at which the option of having US and NATO troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 may no longer be feasible.

"What I don't want to do is run out of options for our elected leaders or for Afghanistan," he told reporters traveling with him.

NATO's separate combat mission in Afghanistan ends at the end of the year. A follow-up NATO mission - Operation Resolute Support - begins on Jan 1, which will see NATO forces engaged at the regional level helping to train, advise and assist Afghan army and police formations. By then NATO would need the Afghan government's approval to legally remain in the country.

Before this can happen, Afghanistan must sign the bilateral security agreement with Washington. Once the US-Afghan agreement is signed, NATO will negotiate a similar pact.

The residual US troops will also be tasked with training and assisting Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism operations beyond 2014 after most American and NATO combat troops exit.

Dempsey said the past year has been "surprisingly positive" for the Afghan national security forces. Both NATO and Afghan leaders underestimated the abilities of the newly formed apparatus, he said.

Since taking over security responsibilities throughout the country last year, Afghan forces have done very well, depriving the Taliban of much success, he said. They never retook territory, launched few large attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul and have not discredited the security forces, the general noted.

But he emphasized that the question now is not how the Afghan forces are doing but how the upcoming Afghan election will come off, and whether there will be a political system to embrace the Afghan forces and their progress in the months ahead.


(China Daily 02/27/2014 page12)

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