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Karzai faces an altered landscape in talks with Obama

The Afghan leader wants to ensure a U.S. role after the 2014 pullout of foreign troops, but the White House is looking at shifting to a covert strategy like that used in Pakistan.

January 10, 2013|By David S. Cloud and Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai reviews an honor guard during a ceremony welcoming him to the Pentagon in Washington.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai reviews an honor guard during a ceremony… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Battling a potent insurgency and waning support in Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet President Obama on Friday amid signs that the White House seeks to transform the ground war in Afghanistan into a conflict similar to the current covert war in Pakistan.

The Obama administration has maintained pressure on Islamist militants who operate in Pakistan's lawless border areas through the use of targeted drone strikes against individuals and small gatherings, vast infusions of military and financial aid to the government in Islamabad, and a mostly hidden U.S. military and CIA presence.

Obama is likely to follow that light-footprint model in Afghanistan after most or all U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014, according to officials familiar with current White House thinking. The evolving plans suggest a sharp shift from policy debates last year, when the administration seemed determined to work with Afghan security forces to lock in territorial gains made by U.S. troops.

The final size and capabilities of the U.S. force that stays behind have not been determined, but the developing plans envision that Afghanistan's armed forces will receive little or no American air and artillery support during combat operations against insurgents, and minimal military or police training except by private contractors, the officials said.

The United States instead intends to conduct a parallel campaign of elite commando raids and drone missile strikes against known or presumed Al Qaeda fighters and commanders. Battling the Taliban will no longer be part of the U.S. mission, the officials said.

Ahead of the meetings Friday, senior Obama aides warned privately that the White House could decide to withdraw all 66,000 American troops now in Afghanistan. That's a clear change from the NATO summit in Chicago in May, when the administration and its allies vowed to continue training and assisting Afghan forces after 2014.

U.S. officials now say Afghan National Army and police forces will be left to fight on their own — supported by billions of dollars annually in aid from Washington and its allies — to stop insurgents from sweeping across the country and potentially reigniting the kind of warlord-driven civil conflict that racked Afghanistan after the Soviet military withdrawal in 1989, ultimately leading to the rise of the Taliban.

U.S. officials acknowledge that the Taliban and other militant groups are likely to claim control of large parts of Afghanistan's border regions in the south and east, just as armed Islamist groups largely control the northwestern tribal belt of Pakistan.

A U.S. official involved in the debate said the Obama administration was having difficulty persuading allies in Europe and elsewhere to leave troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission ends.

Asked Thursday if it was realistic for the U.S. and its allies to remove all their troops, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Obama had not made a decision. "We are not going to walk away from the sacrifices that have been made over these last 10 years," he said.

Karzai, due to leave office next year, is hoping to use the Washington meetings to hold the White House to its promises to provide sustained assistance to help the central government survive.

"Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders, so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists," Karzai told reporters Thursday after a Pentagon ceremony welcoming him to Washington.

But Afghan officials recognize that their leverage with Washington is shrinking, in part because Afghan troops and police, or Afghans in uniform, have killed scores of U.S. and allied troops. Some Afghan officials have begun preparing for a U.S. departure by sending overtures to insurgent factions in hopes of negotiating agreements that will keep the government in Kabul afloat.

Administration officials are still debating how many troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Pentagon officials are pushing for between 6,000 and 9,000; White House aides are considering leaving 3,000 or even fewer.

Warnings by White House aides that Obama is considering withdrawing all troops may be a negotiating ploy aimed at driving down Karzai's demands. The Afghan president's leverage is clear: He must give permission for U.S. forces to use Afghan bases for special operations and drone warfare.

But Stephen Biddle, a military strategy expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that with Al Qaeda weakened and pressure to cut the defense budget growing, Obama may have decided Afghanistan is no longer as vital as it once was.

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