BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan —
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Feb. 26, 2014 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with U.S. leaders here today to ensure they understood what President Barack Obama’s decision on Afghanistan is and what it is not.
White House officials said yesterday that Obama has directed the Defense Department to begin contingency planning for the possibility of a full withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year if no signed bilateral security agreement is in place for a post-2014 U.S. military presence there.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told military leaders here that yesterday’s announcement was direction from the commander in chief for the military to plan for other options in Afghanistan.
The president’s decision was driven by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement his government negotiated with the United States. The agreement would give U.S. and ultimately NATO nations the legal basis for remaining in Afghanistan after the current mandate expires at the end of this year.
NATO is planning a regional approach for Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan that would have between 8,000 and 12,000 service members in the country after this year.
“What we were directed to do yesterday was to look at other options, to include completely retrograding, if we get to a point where we don’t have a bilateral security agreement,” Dempsey said during an interview with reporters traveling with him.
That’s what it is, the chairman said. “What it is not is a fait accompli that we are going to zero,” he added.
“The second thing I wanted everybody to know is we’ve got a lot of work to do in 2014, and we can’t let 2015 distract us from 2014,” Dempsey said.
American military leaders in Afghanistan were not surprised by the president’s direction, the general said, and they understand the “physics” behind the decision.
Dempsey said the leaders talked about “campaign simultaneity,” meaning they have to keep pressure on al-Qaida, the Haqqani network and the Taliban. They also must continue to build Afghan national security forces and continue to retrograde personnel and equipment.
Dempsey said he has spoken to Afghan officials since President Obama’s announcement yesterday. “They all expressed a certain level of anxiety about the possibility that there would be no BSA,” the chairman said. “They all encouraged me to remain committed to a BSA and to an enduring presence, and they all assured me they are doing everything they can to ensure a BSA.”
Dempsey said the most important announcement in the past 12 years was the announcement by the loya jirga, a national council of tribal and community leaders, in November that they overwhelmingly supported U.S. presence and partnership beyond 2014.
“That’s the message that I continue to reinforce,” the chairman said. “Diplomatic engagement among leaders is diplomatic engagement among leaders. It’s the loya jirga we ought to listen to.”
Military leaders need to do as much as possible to preserve decision space for elected leaders, Dempsey said, and this includes those leaders of coalition nations.
“As we look at our retrograde plans, we have a pretty good understanding at what pace they must progress if it became necessary to empty the theater by the end of the year,” the general said. “We are not anywhere near the point where we could not empty the theater. The decision point on going below Resolute Support levels is well into the summer.”
This would be difficult, he said, “but from the U.S. military perspective, the decision can wait until after the elections.” Afghanistan’s elections are scheduled in April.
Karzai’s refusal to sign the agreement is having the effect of encouraging the enemy, and has a detrimental effect on Afghan security force partners, Dempsey said. Afghan forces “want to have a bit of certainty in their future, as you would expect them to,” he added. “They are anxious about the fact that we haven’t achieved the BSA yet.”
The delay will affect coalition forces in different ways. “[The United States] can react even if this is a very late decision,” the chairman said. “That’s not true of all 44 nations in the coalition. Each has a different political calendar, each has a different budget calendar, and each will have a different challenge the longer this issue is delayed.”
U.S. leaders are focused like a laser beam on helping the Afghans secure the upcoming elections, the chairman said. Of the 7,765 polling sites in Afghanistan, more than 90 percent are rated green, meaning the security provisions are in place, polling materials are available, the logistics are planned, and movement is coordinated. “All the things that will make this a successful election are in place,” Dempsey said.
With the elections just over a month away, the Afghans are making progress across the spectrum of things that need to happen, the chairman said. For example, the Afghans needed 13,000 women to search voters entering polling places. Many felt the government would not meet this number, but today 12,000 have been lined up.
“The conditions are set for this to be a far more credible, safe election than was the election in 2009,” Dempsey said. “In 2009, the Afghan security forces numbered approximately 85,000, and today they are about 355,000.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)