PENTAGON — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been in Washington this week discussing the future of his country when NATO-led troops hand off security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Still to be decided is how many, if any, U.S. troops will remain in the country. There is much uncertainty as U.S. leaders plan an exit from one of the longest and most expensive wars in American history.
The Pentagon was an important stop for President Hamid Karzai to discuss a security arrangement for after U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan.
Standing with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Karzai thanked Americans and their allies for their sacrifices.
“I can assure you, Mr. Secretary, that Afghanistan will, with the help that you’ll provide, be able to provide security to its people and protect its borders so Afghanistan will not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders,” Karzai said.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to go after al Qaida terrorists responsible for the September 2001 attacks.
But the war has dragged on more than 11 years, at its peak drawing 100,000 American troops. Polls show a majority of Americans want the war over quickly.
U.S. leaders say they have made progress in preventing insurgents from regaining territory and in training Afghan forces.
But violence persists, insurgents still hold some territory, and there are questions about whether Afghan forces are prepared to secure the country on their own.
And there are questions about Afghanistan’s political future. Elections to replace Karzai are scheduled for 2014, before international troops transfer combat operations to Afghan forces.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins thinks the political transition will be dangerous. “I don’t think the Afghan army is going to run away in 2014 but it’s possible the Afghan government will collapse in 2014 as the result of a failed transition,” Dobbins said.
There are 66,000 U.S. troops still in the country. U.S. commanders want up to 20,000 staying to support Afghan forces after 2014.
Thursday, Secretary Panetta would not discuss Karzai's expectations for troop numbers.
“I don’t want to prejudge what ultimately President Karzai and President Obama will state with regard to the discussions but, I will tell you this, I was very satisfied. He indicated a willingness to do what we believe is necessary,” Panetta said.
But Panetta is retiring soon. Chuck Hagel, the man picked to replace him, has criticized the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and may push for a faster withdrawal.
The White House has made clear that President Obama’s aim is not to maintain a certain number of troops in Afghanistan, but to deny safe haven to al Qaida, and to train and equip Afghan forces. Officials have indicated one option is to not leave any troops at all beyond 2014.