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How would delaying an Afghan deal complicate U.S. commitments in the region?

November 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A day after the U.S. and Afghanistan announced a historic agreement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested delaying the signing of the deal until next April. Judy Woodruff talks to James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for insight on the need to resolve the deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tensions escalated today between the United States and Afghanistan, one day after both sides announced they had reached an historic agreement, paving the way for the U.S. to leave forces in that country beyond 2014.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan (through interpreter): My trust with America is not good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Afghan President HAMID KARZAI opened a meeting of tribal elders in Kabul with a blunt assessment of his often testy relations with the U.S. Still, he urged the loya jirga to endorse a new security agreement, allowing thousands of American troops to stay another 10 years in training and support roles.

HAMID KARZAI (through interpreter): The security agreement will give us the opportunity to move from a transitional process to a stable process. As we are in a pullout process, this withdrawing of foreign troops from Afghanistan should be a happy process. If the foreigners leave Afghanistan unhappy, it will be very dangerous for us. I hope you get my point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, toward the end of his hour-long speech, Karzai threw a new curveball; he called for delaying the actual signing of the agreement until after next April’s presidential election. The U.S. had wanted a deal signed last month.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is seeking clarification.

JEN PSAKI, State Department: We have been very clear, as the secretary was when he was in Kabul just last month, that the — in order to create certainty, in order for the United States, in order for our NATO allies to plan, we must do this as quickly as possible. Otherwise, it puts the planning and the post-2014 presence at risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The proposed agreement has several key provisions, among them, granting U.S. troops immunity from prosecutions in Afghan courts and barring Americans from raiding Afghan homes, except under extraordinary circumstances.

In addition, President Obama sent a last-minute letter to Karzai, promising the U.S. will respect Afghan sovereignty and the dignity of citizens in their homes and private lives.

In response, Karzai today underscored his country’s expectations.

HAMID KARZAI (through interpreter): If Americans would like to sign the bilateral security agreement, in return, we ask them to provide us with stability and peace. I am sure peace is in their hands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Foreign combat forces are already under a deadline to depart Afghanistan by the end of next year. Without a security agreement, all U.S. troops will leave, just as happened in Iraq, when Baghdad failed to sign a similar agreement in 2011.

That would leave nearly 350,000 Afghan security forces without further U.S. military training and funding. The loya jirga will debate through Sunday. Its decisions are not legally binding, but, either way, the Afghan Parliament would still have to ratify the agreement.

To help us understand this back-and-forth and the need for a deal is James Dobbins. He is the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Dobbins, welcome to the NewsHour.

JAMES DOBBINS, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan: Thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the timetable for this deal? President Karzai is saying it wouldn’t be signed until April. The administration wanted it done last month. Which is it?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, the two sides agreed last November that we would do this within a year. And we continue to believe it’s important to achieve that timetable.

And we’re pleased that we were able to reach agreement within that time frame on the text, and we’re hopeful that the loya jirga will give a positive signal. We’re pretty confident that the Afghan Parliament, which will also review this, will be positive. And we do expect that — it to be signed expeditiously thereafter.

We think that’s important, both because we have our own need to plan for our future commitment — or lack of commitment, if it’s — if the agreement is never concluded. All of the other participants in ISAF — there’s some 40 of them — they need to plan. And their plans are dependent on our plans.

And, finally, Afghanistan is going to a very difficult, delicate election at a time of considerable uncertainty. And we need to provide the maximum degree of certainty in the background about the international presence, about the American commitment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to clarify, delaying the signing until April doesn’t jeopardize this?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think delaying the signing to April will make it much more difficult for us to make our commitments. It will make it more difficult and make it virtually impossible for other countries to make their commitments. I think it will have a long-term deleterious impact on the scale of international assistance to Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re trying to get them to change his mind?

JAMES DOBBINS: And, besides that, it’s a two-round election, and it’s not necessarily over in April. It could extend several months beyond that, because, if the first round doesn’t produce a clear winner, there will be a second round.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it sounds like you’re trying to get him to change his mind and make it — make it sooner.

JAMES DOBBINS: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the reports are, Ambassador Dobbins, 8,000 to 12,000 mostly U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan another decade, until 2024, in a training and counterterrorism mission.

Is that what the U.S. wants?

JAMES DOBBINS: The U.S. hasn’t made any — the president hasn’t made any decision on the numbers of the American troops. We do intend that we would probably the largest contributor in an allied force.

The force would be in a non-combat role, train, assist, and advise. There would also be a small American counterterrorism force that would be stationed under this agreement. But the bulk of the troops would be in the train-advise-assist, and it would be a NATO force, with the United States as the largest single contributor, but with a significant number of other countries contributing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re talking in the thousands of U.S. troops?

JAMES DOBBINS: Potentially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you said not in a combat role, but in counterterrorism, so they’d be armed. They’d potentially be putting their lives at risk.

JAMES DOBBINS: I think the counterterrorism element would be relatively small compared to the train, advise, and assist.

Afghanistan remains a dangerous environment, and, yes, our forces would be assuming some degree of risk. But U.S. casualties are way down already, because Afghans are in the lead. And at the point we’re talking about, the Afghans will be comprehensively undertaking the defense of the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the argument to the American people that they should support an agreement that keeps any number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for several more years, up to 10 more years?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, we continue to want to deny Afghanistan as a launch point for international terrorism.

The Taliban continue to be linked with al-Qaida. If the Taliban were able to come back, seize control of some or most or even all of the country, you would again have a regime linked to al-Qaida and prepared to facilitate those kinds of attacks. And we now believe that we can do it with much — a smaller commitment, because we have raised and trained and helped support an Afghan army and — and police force of about 350,000.

But we don’t believe that we can afford to abandon Afghanistan altogether.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The agreement — the agreement also has language in it, though, that puts limits on what U.S. troops can do in terms of not going, for example, into private homes unless there’s an urgent reason to do so. How much of a disadvantage is that?

JAMES DOBBINS: The agreement actually pretty much describes what we’re already doing. Afghan troops are in the lead. We don’t go into Afghan homes.

We sometimes accompany Afghan troops that go into Afghan homes if they have reason to search the home. So the things that we’re precluded from doing in the agreement are by and large things we have already ceased doing, and, after all, we want these roles to be assumed by the Afghans. We don’t want to continue to have to do them ourselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask because that specific language is in the agreement. The Afghans were — felt very strongly that it should be in.

JAMES DOBBINS: Right. Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Ambassador Dobbins, the idea — among other things, what President Karzai said today was, he said, “My trust with America is not good.”

Again, for Americans to see their troops committed to a country where the relationship between the leaders — or at least on the part of President Karzai toward the United States, is shaky at best, how do you — how do you explain that to the American people?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, President Karzai is not going to be president of the country more than another four months, approximately four to six months, depending on whether the election goes into a second round.

Afghanistan is a democracy. It’s holding elections. I think we will judge Afghanistan’s attitude toward our forces and toward our commitment by what the loya jirga, which is currently meeting, decides, and perhaps equally importantly, what the parliament ultimately decides when this agreement is submitted to them. At this point, we anticipate strong support this both forums.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do expect strong support?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And a new leader with a better attitude toward the United States?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, there’s — at this point, there are 11 candidates.

The entire political class of the country is engaged as candidates or supporting candidates. I think most — several of the candidates have already said that they would sign this agreement if President Karzai didn’t. We don’t want to postpone a signature to that point.

So I don’t want to characterize, you know, the individual candidates. We’re not backing any one of them. But I don’t think there’s any of them we couldn’t live with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador James Dobbins, who is the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, thank you.

JAMES DOBBINS: My pleasure.