Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and committee member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they expect answers soon to five questions put to U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey on Afghanistan. The committee is currently considering Dempsey’s re-nomination as the nation’s top-ranking military officer.
Levin and McCain asked Dempsey whether he believed the military campaign, especially the development of Afghan forces, was succeeding, and about the appropriateness of cutting the U.S. troop contingent by half by next February or March, just weeks ahead of national elections scheduled for April 5.
“Do you believe we have national security interests in Afghanistan that justify an enduring presence of U.S. forces beyond 2014?” the senators asked.
Levin and McCain also wanted to know whether Dempsey believed that reaching a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban by the end of 2014 was in the U.S. national security interest.
And they asked if he thought the incentives now exist for the Taliban to reach such an agreement that would serve U.S. interests, “including respect for the Afghan constitution.”
Almost 12 years after U.S. forces first went into Afghanistan in response to al-Qaeda’s Sept. 2011 attack on America, the U.S. today has around 66,000 troops in the country, a number expected to be almost halved by next February.
The end of 2014 is the declared date for the completion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but amid concerns that the Taliban could overrun large parts of the country once the coalition departs the Obama administration is mulling options for an ongoing presence beyond that date – to train and advise Afghan forces, and conduct counterterrorism missions as necessary.
The administration has long insisted that any agreement with Taliban elements will require the militants to end violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.
But despite the recent initiative that saw the Taliban open a liaison office in Qatar in preparation for talks with U.S. officials as part of a broader “Afghan-led” reconciliation effort, there has been no let-up in Taliban attacks. The initiative stalled – not because of ongoing violence, but because Karzai was angered by the way it was handled.
Three American soldiers were killed in a Taliban suicide bombing attack in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, bringing to 81 the number killed this year alone. According to figures kept by icasualties.org, a total of 2,255 U.S. troops have now been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, along with 1,099 from other coalition countries.
Incensed by an abortive U.S. attempt to launch reconciliation talks with the Taliban, Karzai recently suspended negotiations on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that will cover post-2014 U.S. military engagement. U.S. officials then floated the prospect of a “zero option” – deploying no troops after the combat mission ends.
In Kabul on Monday, Dempsey and Karzai held talks – State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described them as “informal discussions” rather than “formal negotiations,” which she said remain suspended – and the general afterwards expressed the hope that a BSA may be finalized by October.
Despite Karzai’s public criticism, Dempsey told reporters that he left the president “convinced that he is as committed as we are to moving ahead with this bilateral security agreement as soon as possible.”
In response to a question, Dempsey said he does not support the zero option, but noted that it was a possibility, “because we can only stay here if we are invited to do so.”
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told an event hosted by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies Tuesday that the administration does not believe a zero option would be “in the interests of the Afghan people or of the United States.”
Psaki at the State Department said Tuesday that the U.S. has stressed its continuing commitment to “a fully sovereign, democratic and united Afghanistan.”
“We’ve been clear in public and private, as have many of our allies and partners in the broader international community, that as Afghans stand up, we won’t – they won’t stand alone,” she said. “As you know, the president is still making a decision about troop presence. I don’t have any update for you on that, but this is something we have many people focused on.”