Afghanistan: White House Signals Rapid Withdrawal, Reassures Karzai

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A key issue that will immediately face the new defense secretary will be managing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Washington this week for talks on the future of his country once the U.S. and NATO pull out most of their troops in 2014, but the speed and shape of that draw-down and what comes next has yet to be decided. Adam Entous is national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He's in Washington. Tell us first of all, Adam. Why is Karzai coming to Washington? What does he want to say to Washington? What does he want to hear?

Adam Entous: Well, at this point he's coming here because the president wants to talk to him about the shape of the way the U.S. would be postured after 2014 in terms of the numbers of troops that the U.S. would keep there. Obama wants to be able to kind of assure Karzai that the U.S. does envision a long-term agreement that would keep some number of troops. Right now the Pentagon is looking at anywhere from 3,000 to possibly 6,000 or 9,000 staying there after 2014.

Werman: So, what kind of deal would the White House like to see kind of in the bag, or at least the fundamentals, of a deal in the bag by the time Karzai leaves Washington?

Entous: Well, at this point it's not clear that they are going to be able to reach this agreement during this visit, and I think the visit is largely designed to kind of lay the ground and assure Karzai that the president intends to try to keep a force there to try to promote stability in Afghanistan after the pullout is complete and, in turn, President Karzai is seeking assurances that the U.S. is going to support his security forces long term. So, he's come here with a list of weapons that he wants the U.S. to provide that would help him secure his country, potentially after 2014.

Werman: Adam, do you think the need for that hardware says a lot about Afghanistan's ability to kind of get its forces ramped up to take care of themselves?

Entous: It certainly does, and it also says a lot about how the military â�" the U.S. military â�" is coming to grips with the expected much smaller force that they're going to have there post 2014. The way the White House is moving the process, the writing is really on the wall. It's going to be a rather bare bones presence post 2014, and as a result, the U.S. is really going to have to do a lot over the next year, over the next two years, to get the Afghans in a place where they can actually mobilize and deploy their forces in a way to counter the Taliban if the fighting picks up after 2014.

Werman: So step back a sec, Adam, for us. What is your sense of Obama's direction in his second term now? I mean, without the need to secure re-election, what's the big headline for Afghanistan?

Entous: Well, I think like you saw with Iraq in 2011, the expectation is that the president is going to move very quickly to draw down the 66,000 troops that are currently in Afghanistan. So, we're talking about a force at the end of 2013 that is roughly what the U.S. troop levels were when President Obama came to office in 2009. Then in 2014, you're going to see a very rapid draw-down again. General Allen would like to taper this process, tie it in with key events such as Afghan presidential elections in 2014, expected handovers of remaining districts and provinces to fuller Afghan control, but it's unclear whether the White House has the patience or if it is going to be pushing for that to happen on a more rapid basis than General Allen would like.

Werman: Where does Chuck Hagel, the nominee for defense secretary, stand on this?

Entous: Chuck Hagel, if he's confirmed as defense secretary, will move aggressively to carry out a rapid draw-down of forces in 2013 and 2014 and isn't going to be trying to fight the administration on them, which is something that you saw when Robert Gates was secretary of defense and, to a certain extent, under Leon Panetta. So, I think the Hagel defense department is going to be much more in lock step with the White House on this.

Werman: Adam Entous, national security correspondent with The Wall Street Journal.