Facing sharp criticism from a Senate panel, a senior Obama administration official expressed optimism Thursday that the U.S. will reach an agreement with the Afghan government allowing American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014.
James Dobbins, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said President Barack Obama is still mulling a range of options for the actual size of the U.S. military presence at the end of next year, but told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that as the Afghans build up their country, they won't stand alone.
"We've made significant progress on the text of a new bilateral security agreement," Dobbins said. "Of course, without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan, we would not remain. But we do not believe that that's the likely outcome of these negotiations."
But Democrats and Republicans on the committee voiced frustration over the shortage of detail on troop levels. With Afghans slated to elect a new president in the spring of 2014, it is key to let them know they won't be abandoned by the United States as the Taliban claims, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has to decide if he is willing to accept a longer-term U.S. troop presence by negotiating an agreement with acceptable terms, he said.
"For our part, I believe that President Obama should signal to the Afghans and our allies what the post-2014 U.S. troop presence will look like governed by a security agreement," Menendez said. "The lack of clarity on this point has led to too much hedging in the region."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel's top Republican, said the uncertainty over future U.S. troop levels is "almost embarrassing" and is undermining the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
"This administration . . . has tremendous difficulty making decisions," Corker said. "I think the administration has got to quit looking at its navel and make a decision on what the force structure is going to be in Afghanistan."
The U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan last month formally handed over control of the country's security to the Afghan army and police. The handover paved the way for the departure of coalition forces — currently numbering about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will be replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise the Afghans.
Although Obama remains undecided on how many troops will remain in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.
The two primary goals for the U.S. in Afghanistan are to train, assist, and advise Afghan forces so that they can maintain their own security, and making sure that American forces can continue "to go after remnants of al-Qaida or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland," Dobbins said.
"That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we've had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan," he said.
But with respect to actual troop numbers, Obama "is still reviewing a range of options from his national security team and has not made a decision about the size of a U.S. military presence after 2014," Dobbins said.
Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told the committee the U.S. "is transitioning in Afghanistan, not leaving."
The White House said Tuesday the decision on troops in Afghanistan won't be imminent. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the so-called "zero option" - no forces at all - is still on the table. The U.S. will have clear objectives for its mission in Afghanistan after the long-planned drawdown, Carney said, adding that those objectives could be met with a residual force or through other means.
Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, told the committee that the discussion of the zero option, even if ultimately disavowed, could prove damaging.
"The U.S. and its allies need to be actively countering the narrative of abandonment that is frequently heard in Afghanistan," Hadley said.
The best way to do this would be for the U.S. to state its intention as soon as possible to have a robust troop presence in Afghanistan and to announce the size of that force before work on the bilateral security agreement is completed, Hadley said.
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