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As U.S.-Afghan relations hit new barrier, what options exist for security deal?

January 27, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: As U.S. officials struggle to hammer out a post-2014 security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, there was another snag today. The Afghan government decided to release dozens of prisoners the U.S. deems dangerous.

JEN PSAKI, State Department: The 37 detainees are dangerous criminals against whom there is strong evidence linking them to terror-related crimes.

GWEN IFILL: Washington’s already tense relations with the Afghan government worsened again with Kabul’s decision to release 37 prisoners from the Parwan detention facility.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki:

JEN PSAKI: These insurgents who pose threat to the safety and the security of the Afghan people and the state are being released without an investigation and without the use of the criminal justice system and in accordance with Afghan law.

GWEN IFILL: The prisoner release came on the heels of a story in Saturday’s New York Times. It involved a U.S. attack on the remote Afghan village of Wazghar on Jan. 15. Karzai’s government-circulated dossier included this photo, purporting to show a funeral held the day after the attacks, but the picture was actually taken in 2009 in another area.

The incidents come amid an already contentious debate over a security agreement governing any U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after the end of the year. Last November, an assembly of Afghan elders known as a loya jirga voted in favor of Karzai signing the accord. But, so far, he has refused to do so, and on Saturday he sounded defiant.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan (through translator): Afghanistan will never sign the security agreement under pressure. No pressure, no threat, no psychological operation against our people can force us to sign the security agreement. If the foreigners want to leave, they should leave today.

GWEN IFILL: Karzai insists he will not sign until Afghans vote on April 5 to elect a new president. The U.S. and NATO have warned against further delay.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO secretary-general: For planning reasons, we need to know soon whether we are invited or not.

GWEN IFILL: Speaking in Brussels today, the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said time is running out to plan for a future military force in Afghanistan.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: If we are not invited, if we don’t have any legal framework, then we can’t stay in Afghanistan after 2014. It is as simple as that.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, the prospect of a complete withdrawal has raised fears that hard-fought security gains could evaporate. Some U.S. intelligence officials also warn that losing access to Afghan air bases and airspace will hurt their ability to launch surveillance and attack drones into neighboring Pakistan.

Is this a new low in the U.S.-Afghan relationship with the U.S.? Or is it just another chapter in a tumultuous alliance?

I’m joined by Zalmay Khalilzad. He was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. And David Sedney, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2007 to 2009.

Obvious question, is this, Mr. Ambassador, the break?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan: I hope not. I don’t think so.

I think Karzai, anyway, has about two months left in his presidency. The Afghan people, as you mentioned, want a security agreement, as demonstrated in the loya jirga. The candidates who are running for president to replace President Karzai, all of them have said they will sign the agreement. They are willing to express that, I’m told, to the U.S. ambassador, should the U.S. ambassador ask them.

So the challenge for us is, are we going to wait out President Karzai and sign the agreement with the successor, or do we use Karzai’s intransigence and I think very unpopular stance in Afghanistan, to use that as an excuse, if you like, and go to a zero option, so-called zero option and say no more troops after 2014 in Afghanistan?

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sedney, let’s stipulate that Hamid Karzai is being intransigent or at least stubborn or at least won’t do what the U.S. wants right now. Is this a break, a real break?

DAVID SEDNEY, former Defense Department official: No, I don’t think it’s a break. What it is, is a series of mistakes, including a lot of mistakes on our side, as we almost seem to have empowered Karzai in the last couple of months when he was more and more a lame-duck.

GWEN IFILL: How did we do that?

DAVID SEDNEY: By setting deadlines which were never nervous, which we never meant. First, we said October. Then we said November. Then we said December. And then a couple of weeks ago, we said a couple of weeks. None of those deadlines really had any basis in fact.

And they have resulted in Karzai strengthening his hand and playing to a domestic audience that may not exist, but which he thinks does, that pushes towards confrontation, rather than — rather than progress.

GWEN IFILL: Is he realigning himself, as far as you can tell from this distance, with the Taliban in this?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think if there is a break, if there is an announcement, which I would think wouldn’t be wise on our part, that we had decided to go for zero option…

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean, the zero option?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Meaning a withdrawal of all forces next year — or this year, actually, 2014.

And then I think the conflict is likely to intensify among Afghans and, in that context, alignments could change. The Afghan history shows repeatedly changing alliances. So I wouldn’t rule out in that scenario a possible Karzai-Taliban access.

He was close to the Taliban at the beginning when the Taliban emerged.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD: They, in fact, he told me, had offered them to be their U.N. ambassador. But then it didn’t work out. So I think, at times, he does think that a realignment with the Taliban by him and some of his supporters maybe is not so undesirable.

GWEN IFILL: If that were the case, Mr. Sedney, how difficult would that be? And I want to get back to your question about deadlines, because the next deadline obviously is April, the election day. And I wonder if that one if going to be met. But, first, how dangerous would it be if he were, indeed, to realign with the Taliban?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, it would certainly be very dangerous for U.S. national interests, because the Taliban have never really broken with al-Qaida. And the whole purpose of our going into Afghanistan from the beginning was to prevent al-Qaida from coming back and carrying out other attacks such as they did on 9/11.

But I think it would also be dangerous for President Karzai, because the vast majority of Afghan people, as the loya jirga, which really represents the Afghan population, they want a future with the United States, with the West, with other countries. And if President Karzai were to try and throw in his lot with the Taliban, then I think he would be in a very dangerous position internally.

GWEN IFILL: So, the U.S. should just wait him out on this until the April elections and he is no longer there?

DAVID SEDNEY: That would be my recommendation very much, because I think everything we have done to the contrary, setting all these deadlines, has just made him more intransigent, made it less likely that he would agree.

GWEN IFILL: Why not just do the zero option, why not just walk away?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, that is obviously an option.

But I think it will have very negative implications. It will limit our ability to deal with the remaining al-Qaida threat in the region. And we operate from Afghanistan against those threats. Two, our presence is also as a hedge against Pakistan going bad, if a nuclear weapon — perhaps a nuclear weapon falls into the hands of extremists in Pakistan and we have to react. Being in Afghanistan does provided with the platform and capability to move quickly.

And then there is the issue of what happens to Afghanistan, as David mentioned, that Afghanistan, the Taliban could come back and al-Qaida could come back, and we may have to go back there at some point down the road.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD: So there are risks to embracing the zero option.

GWEN IFILL: There is another option, which is leave 10,000 troops on the ground. Right now, there has been a negotiation between 12,000 and 15,000 and this is the — or 8,000 and 15,000 — this is the latest version of that. And perhaps that’s the solution.

But I want to get back to a point you just raised about Afghanistan being a vital launching pad for us as we continue to keep an eye on disputed regions, especially in Pakistan. Reports now that if we were to pull away, that our drone program would be harmed. How much of a loss would that be if we were forced to close CIA bases which launch drones?

DAVID SEDNEY: I think it would be a very serious loss. We have not defeated al-Qaida. What we have done is, we have driven them down. We have made them hide. We have made them less effective, but they are still there. And without that pressure, they will come back.

GWEN IFILL: So what do you do about that? So that takes that option off the table, the walking away option.

DAVID SEDNEY: I think it should take it away. But my concern is there are people who do not see it as quite clearly that that threat to the United States exists, and we may walk around and then live to regret it.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a path that still exists, Mr. Ambassador, the diplomat, to working this out with Karzai some time between now and April, or has it become clear, as he’s always pulled away from any kind of threat and demand put on him, that he never plans to agree?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, when David and I were serving in Afghanistan together, we worked well with him. And things are quite different now.

But I think our posture ought to be we’re willing to Karzai if he changes his mind and signs.

GWEN IFILL: Even if he keeps saying no, even if there’s no sign of him changing his mind?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: But we can say we are willing to sign with him, but we’re willing to also — we’re open to signing with his successor.

I agree with David that this idea of setting deadlines and not meaning them, as probably Karzai believes that we are not serious, that we will meet his terms, that Afghanistan is very important for us and we will accommodate him.

GWEN IFILL: Why do we trust his potential successors to be able to do what we need in the region? We have seen in so many other cases around the region we have created, we have set somebody up who is going to come in and fix everything and it doesn’t work. So why — from the people who are now up for this job, why do we think that they can do it?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, we won’t know until they actually have an election and we just see who is chosen.

But I think there are actually a number of fairly strong candidates, people who we have worked with very closely in the past. And most importantly, the election gives the Afghan people themselves a chance to choose. And then I think we will have a much better chance of moving forward.

GWEN IFILL: And that will be in April.

David Sedney and Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you both.


DAVID SEDNEY: Thank you.