BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan —
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived here today as White House officials announced that in the absence of a signed post-2014 bilateral security agreement, President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal should the United States not keep any troops in the country beyond the end of the year.
Dempsey told reporters traveling with him that he recommended the U.S. military begin the planning process.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears unlikely sign the bilateral security agreement he negotiated with the United States last year. The agreement would put in place the legal authority for American troops to continue serving in the country under Operation Resolute Support, the follow-on operation, in 2015.
The order to begin the planning process does not close the door on continued American and NATO presence in Afghanistan next year, White House officials said. The “train, advise and assist” mission could continue should a new Afghan president sign the agreement. Afghan national elections are scheduled for April.
But the more time that passes without an agreement, White House officials said, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, they said, the longer a signed post-2014 agreement is not in place, the more likely it will be that any U.S. mission after this year will be smaller in scale and ambition.
“The idea here is we’re at the point where we have to begin planning for other options,” Dempsey said. “We’ve seen it coming, and I’m sure I’ll find our junior leaders are ahead of me on this.”
The general said he wants military officials in Afghanistan to know what this decision is and what it is not. “It is a statement where we’ve reached a point where we have to plan for other options -- to include a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014,” Dempsey said. “But it is not an indication that we’re not committed to a mission beyond the end of 2014, because we very much believe the Afghan security forces could use our help.”
Dempsey said he also will tell service members here that there is still a lot of work that needs to happen through the end of the year. “All this planning for ’15 is important, but we have some really heavy lifting to do for the Afghans this year, and I want to make sure we stay focused on it,” he said.
This year, NATO and U.S. forces will work with Afghan forces to ensure the election happens safely, the general noted, adding that he also wants to talk about retrograde issues here. “We have this issue of making sure our Afghan partners know we really are committed, but absent a bilateral security agreement, I can’t ask our young men and women to serve in a country without the protections afforded by a BSA,” Dempsey said.
As the United States military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, the force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement today.
"During this time,” the secretary said, “DOD will still continue planning for U.S. participation in a NATO-led mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces, as well as a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission.”
Dempsey said the United States does have incentive for a continued presence in Afghanistan.
“The United States does not want to leave Afghanistan, principally because al-Qaida -- the ideological movement that manifests itself in violence and anti-American, anti-Western activities -- is still alive,” the general said. “It’s morphed as we’ve pressured it, so now it exists from Afghanistan through Mali. [We] need to keep pressure on it through its entire length. You can’t ignore it anywhere along its length.”
The United States needs a credible, stable, reliable partner in Afghanistan against al-Qaida for the near future, Dempsey added.
The young men and women who have served in Afghanistan accomplished their mission, the chairman said. “They set back al-Qaida in very significant ways,” he said. “They have built an institution -- Afghan security forces -- that, given the right political structure around them, can sustain the fight. We can’t deliver a political outcome.”
This could cause dislocations for those deploying to Afghanistan, Dempsey acknowledged. It will not be so noticeable for active duty troops, he added, but will be for the reserve components.
“If you mobilize them for a mission, they suspend school, their jobs, rent out their apartments, sell their cars,” Dempsey said. “What we’ve done in the past is we tried to re-mission them somewhere else.”
But time remains before those decisions have to be made, Dempsey told reporters. “We won’t reach a point where we have to change our structure or change our retrograde plans or postpone or delay or cancel deployments for a few more months,” he said.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)