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Is withdrawal from Afghanistan still on schedule?

October 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
12 years after the so-called ‘war on terror’ began in 2001, an estimated 55-60,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration has said all American combat forces will be pulled from Afghanistan by the end of next year. New York Times foreign correspondent Matthew Rosenberg reports from Kabul via Skype.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Of course the so called war on terror began in Afghanistan, twelve years ago this month, weeks after the September 11th attacks. An estimated 55 to 60 thousand American troops are still deployed in that country, and just today four of them were killed in a bombing in the south. The Obama administration said all American combat forces will be pulled from Afghanistan by the end of next year, for the latest about all of this we’re joined from Kabul via Skype by New York Times correspondent Matthew Rosenberg. So Matthew, where are we, kind of a status update in our plans for U.S. troop withdrawal?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: The plan that we’ve been told all along is that they’re going to leave a small residual force here, up to maybe nine thousand people plus a few thousand from NATO to help train the Afghans with a smaller counter-terrorism force of special operations guys who would go out and you know, continue the fight against al-Qaeda, the remnants of what’s left of al-Qaeda here. The thing is that’s all contingent on the Afghans and the Americans negotiating a deal, a long term security deal to establish the rules under which the American forces would stay here, after 2014 when their legal mandate ends. And you know, everybody said we’re going to get that done, we’re going to get that done but in the last few months, it’s getting, the impasse has gotten longer and longer and they now seem to be at a total impasse in those talks and within the White House there is just, you can tell, a growing constituency that says ‘let’s just leave, we don’t need to be here anymore and we, if the Afghan’s don’t want us there under the terms that we want to be there, why are we trying?’

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what are the concerns that leaders from both countries have, about reducing our troop levels to zero?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG:  Look, the Americans have said and they’ve said it very clearly, a number of American officials over recent days, that if we leave and our military leaves, these aid commitments that Afghanistan depends on will disapp- they’re not going to get all that money that they’ve been promised. Afghanistan is not a country that can support itself, about twenty percent of its own bills are covered by tax revenue here, customs revenue, the international community pays for everything else, security forces, how the government runs. The Afghan army also while it’s gotten a lot better isn’t there yet, it can’t supply itself, it doesn’t have air support, it’s air force won’t be ready for another four years, it needs help, and if we leave it won’t get that help. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, perhaps this is a question of logistics but how soon do these decisions need to be made if we’re going to withdraw 55 or 60 thousand people out of Afghanistan?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Not as soon as you think, the withdrawal plan right now has the numbers down to thirty four thousand by February and I’ve been told by generals you can get ten, roughly ten thousand troops out a month.  So that gives them plenty of time before the end of 2014. I think that the administration, they just want, they don’t want a repeat of what happened in Iraq where everybody expects a deal and in the last minute it doesn’t happen. Politically it looks bad at home, logistically it’s a problem for the army if at the last minute they’ve got to pull eight, nine thousand people out of the military. And I think you’ve got a group of people in the White House who just want to leave and now they maybe have an excuse.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, we’ve also seen recently some release of high profile Taliban leaders from Pakistan, there’s speculation that this is part of a larger conversation, where are we in negotiating with the Taliban? Is the United States doing it or brokering it through the Afghan government?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: We’ve got to know we’re on that. Since there was an attempt over the summer to open this office for talks with Qatar and that kind of blew up in everybody’s faces with the Taliban putting up a flag and Karzai saying he won’t do it if they’re going to act like a separate government and since then there’s been no progress. The release of the leaders in Pakistan has been a good kind of confidence building measure for the Afghans and the Pakistanis and the Americans are trying to encourage that. But in terms of actual talks, they’re, they’re, they’ve been stalled and have not started up again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Matthew Rosenberg joining us from Kabul via Skype from the New York Times, thanks so much.