Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be prominent on the policy circuit in Washington this week, looking for funding and assurances that his country will not be left in the lurch once the United States withdraws its combat troops by the end of next year.
His visit, which will include stops at the Pentagon and the State Department, will culminate in a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday, after which the two heads of state will issue a joint statement and meet with reporters.
The visit is heavy on rhetoric and symbolism, but likely to be light on substance: the White House has been very clear that no decisions on post-2014 troop numbers or funding levels will be made while Karzai is in town.
“This is not a visit for making decisions on troop levels,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “This is a time to take stock of where we are and provide guidance.”
The Afghan delegation has made no secret of the fact that they are looking for commitments; Karzai’s Defense Ministry has given him a shopping list and strict instructions to look out for Afghanistan’s military, particularly the Air Force.
The Afghan president himself will almost certainly be trying to shame the United States into significant funding in the post-2014 world. He has been liberal in placing the blame for many of his country’s problems squarely on the shoulders of the international community.
In December, he told NBC’s Atia Abawi that the international forces were largely responsible for the insecurity and corruption in Afghanistan.
“There is a growing perception, for a number of years now, that a significant part of the insecurity in Afghanistan is caused by the way the United States and some of its allies promoted lawlessness in Afghanistan, by spreading corruption in Afghanistan,” he said in an interview in Kabul.
Karzai's chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram, has been open in his conviction that Afghanistan holds all the cards.
“The world needs us more than we need them,” Khurram told the Washington Post a few days before the Afghan delegation left Kabul for the US capital.
But Karzai’s unique blend of bluster, complaints and demands may not find a sympathetic audience in a capital that is desperately eager to see the last of the troublesome president and his even more problematic country.
“We are not going to be responsible for the security of Afghanistan after 2014,” Rhodes said. “Our combat mission is over.”
Much of the attention on the post-2014 US presence in Afghanistan has focused on the number of American troops that will be left in the country. Some officials, including the outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, have recommended that a healthy contingent be left to guard American interests. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, Allen had recommended that the United States alone should keep at least 15,000 troops in the country.
But Rhodes made clear in yesterday’s conference call that the White House is looking at much lower levels — all the way down to zero.
“That would be an option we would consider,” said Rhodes, in answer to a reporter’s question about whether the “zero option” was on the table. “The US does not have an inherent objective of 'X' number of troops in Afghanistan."
The United States’ objective in Afghanistan, insisted Rhodes, was what had been outlined by the president back in 2009: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda, and to deny terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan.
This may be a goal that has already been attained, if President Karzai is to be believed. In his December interview with NBC, he cast doubt on the whole question of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think Al Qaeda has a presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t even know if Al Qaeda exists as an organization in the way it is being spoken about.”
With the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American forces in May 2011, much of the urgency of the Afghanistan war abated, at least in the minds of war-weary US taxpayers. Economic difficulties and political gridlock in Washington have made it much more difficult to come up with a rationale for a continued US presence in a remote country that seems to present little likelihood of long-term stability.
Whatever happens in Afghanistan once the troops go home is going to have to be the responsibility of the Afghans themselves, the White House says.
“It is not our goal to dominate Afghan politics after 2014,” Rhodes said.
His colleague, Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for South Asia Doug Lute, echoed the sentiment.
“We agree that an Afghan-led political process is absolutely essential to bring the war to a successful close,” he said.
But there are many questions and uncertainties ahead. Despite Karzai’s blithe assurances in the NBC interview that the Afghan National Security Forces will be “quite ready” to take full responsibility for the country’s security by the end of 2014, experts are not so sure.
According to a report released in October by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government and military fall far short of where they need to be if they are to keep the country moving forward.
“The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF facilities after the transition in 2014 and the expected decrease in US and coalition support,” read the report. “The Afghan government’s challenges … include a lack of sufficient numbers and quality of personnel, as well as undeveloped budgeting, procurement, and logistics systems.
Experience has also shown that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which include the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the forces belonging to the National Directorate of Security, cannot be relied upon in a crisis.
In September 2011, when a handful of terrorists held Kabul hostage for two days, the international forces had to be called in, in spite of the fact that lead responsibility for Kabul’s security had been handed over to the ANSF in 2008.
“The performance of the Afghan forces, who appeared unable either to root out the attackers or control the environment around the firefight, raised questions among locals and foreigners alike — even among police and soldiers themselves — about their ability to maintain security if Western forces stick to their 2014 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan,” wrote TIME correspondent John Wendle, who witnessed the fight.
The White House concedes that there are problems.
“The ANSF are a work in progress,” Lute said. “It is not a completed task.”
Still, it is full steam ahead for transition to full Afghan responsibility for security, and Karzai will most likely take very little home with him aside from warm assurances of an “enduring partnership” from the American side.
“As Afghanistan stands up for its own security, they will not stand alone,” Rhodes said.
But exactly who will be standing with them remains a mystery.