On a call that took place this Tuesday morning, President Obama informed President Karzai that he had instructed the Pentagon to begin planning for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. He did so, according to news reports, because he has determined it is unlikely that President Karzai will sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would provide a framework under which U.S. troops could continue to operate in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
This sounds like big news, and is being reported as such by the media. Only it isn’t. On the same phone call President Obama said that, of course, if Afghanistan’s next president proves more supportive of quickly signing the BSA, then the United States could still consider leaving troops behind. Afghanistan’s presidential elections take place in early April – just over a month from now. So the message, then, is: “Sorry, we have run out of time to sign the BSA and we are therefore starting to pull out of Afghanistan, except that if your successor (who will take over in just a couple of months) does choose to sign the BSA, then we will not pull out of Afghanistan after all.”
This is only the latest in a string of decidedly unserious diplomatic signals sent to Karzai by various representatives of the Obama administration. First President Obama announced a deadline of October 31 of last year for concluding the BSA negotiations. Then he sent Susan Rice to Kabul, where she told President Karzai that if a BSA was not signed by the end of the last calendar year, the United States would have to start planning for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. When Karzai did not meet that deadline either, the White House stated in early January that the BSA had to be signed within a matter of weeks and not months and after that, the administration said the absolute latest date by which a BSA would have to be signed was around the time of the annual meeting of Defense Ministers taking place this week.
So why would Obama place this phone call now and – perhaps an even better question – why would he think that such a phone call would have any effect at this stage? Moreover, every mainstream candidate for president in Afghanistan has already gone on-record to state that if elected, they would expeditiously sign the BSA, which they view as in Afghanistan’s interests. So why would President Obama not simply wait just a couple of months until Afghanistan’s new president is elected, and then deal with the BSA at that time?
There are two possible explanations. The first is that President Obama is actually playing a clever game. Under this scenario, the assumption is that President Obama has decided that a meaningful residual U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is no longer in America’s strategic interests – or at the very least, no longer justifies the associated human, political, and financial costs – and is looking for an excuse to wind down our commitments. If this is true, Karzai is actually playing right into Obama’s hands by enabling him to appear as though he did everything in his power to conclude a BSA with Afghanistan, and allowing him to blame President Karzai’s intransigence for the fact that one was not concluded in time. Obama can say to the American and Afghan people that he simply had no choice but to initiate a pull-out of U.S. troops.
This explanation, however, ultimately does not withstand scrutiny. The Obama administration has invested tremendous amounts of time and energy over the past few months into this BSA, deploying the president, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor, among others. If the administration fails to secure a BSA, officials may leak that this was actually their plan all along, but that will be nothing more than a face-saving post hoc justification.