Afghanistan Security Forces (NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan)
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s warning to Afghan president Hamid Karzai on Tuesday that he may pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year if there is no security agreement signed drew a swift response from Pakistani officials concerned about the volatile border with their neighbor.
“The zero option means civil war in Afghanistan” said a senior Pakistani defense official told reporters in Washington, DC. “In my opinion zero option should not be an option.”
Afghan and Pakistani forces have traded gunfire and artillery strikes over their shared mountainous border over the past several years, and both are fighting Islamist movements whose leadership structure is hiding out in the neighboring country.
Pakistan has lost thousands of troops in recent years fighting Islamist militants in the Swat Valley and Waziristan, where the government is able to exercise little to no control.
But Pakistan is poised to yet again launch a major military sweep of the tribal region in the coming days after weeks of Taliban attacks and the failure of peace talks with the militants. The Pakistani Army has about 150,000 troops in the region, which borders the Afghan province of Khost, also a hotbed is Islamist militancy.
The Pakistani official was scathing in his estimation of the Afghan security forces, saying that “the inherent weakness of the Afghan National Security Forces, [is] that they have yet to mature into a cohesive fighting machine,” since they have not been able to organically grow an officer and junior non-commissioned leader corps.
“If there is a zero option and if there is mayhem in Afghanistan,” the official continued, “I think 30 percent of forces would desert because basically they are all tribesmen, so this will be a very dangerous thing.”
The Afghan Army has been losing 4,000 to 7,000 troops a month to desertion over the past two years, but a brisk recruitment rate has kept the force growing to reach its goal of about 195,000 soldiers.
The US has been trying to sign a status of forces agreement with the Karzai government in Kabul that would protect US troops from arrest and grant basing rights, but the Afghan leader has continuously balked.
Elections for the next president are slated for April, with a runoff expected to take place in July if there is no clear winner. Karzai has said that he wants the next president to sign the pact.
In a call with Karzai on Tuesday, president Obama told the Afghan leader that without a signed Bilateral Security Agreement in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial — which begins Feb. 26 in Brussels, Belgium — he would ask the Pentagon to ensure that it has plans in place to pull out at the end of this year, as opposed to keeping 3,000 to 10,000 troops behind to continue to train and advise Afghan forces.
Entrenched positions on Capitol Hill fell into place on Tuesday after the White House statement was released in the morning.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters he believes the administration should cease trying to convince Karzai to sign the pact.
“We need a president’s signature,” Levin said, “not his.”
“His signature is not that reliable,” Levin said. “He can sign something and then change his mind, just the way he has not signed something after he has agreed to something.”
Levin’s comments came about 24 hours after his House counterpart, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., used a National Press Club address to urge Obama to keep an unspecified number of American troops there beyond this year.
McKeon is joined by hawkish members like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others. They believe a complete US withdrawal will undo gains made by US forces since late 2001, allow the Taliban to regain power — and create the same kind of safehaven for al-Qaida that allowed it to plot the 9/11 attack.
But a growing number of congressional Republicans, perhaps bending to a growing majority of the American public, seem willing to end the Afghanistan operation. They are joined by liberal and moderate Democrats, including those like Sen. Joe Manchin, who hails from red state West Virginia.
Manchin issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon supporting the “zero option.”
The moderate West Virginian said keeping American troops there after 13 years — a milestone that will be hit later this year — is unlikely to produce a clear US victory.
“Unfortunately, American money and military might cannot solve the problems that remain,” Manchin said. “They cannot make President Karzai a friend of the United States, they cannot prevent insider attacks against our troops, and they cannot root out the corruption that thrives on American tax dollars. It is time to bring our troops home from our nation’s longest war.”
Staff writer Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.