WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ordered the Pentagon to plan for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year should the Afghan government refuse to sign a security agreement with the U.S, the White House said Tuesday.
However, in a call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama also said the U.S. could still keep a limited troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014 if the agreement is ultimately signed. He acknowledged Karzai was unlikely to sign the bilateral security agreement himself, leaving the fate of the continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to the winner of the country’s April elections.
“We will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year,” the White House said in a summary of the call between the two leaders. However, the White House added “the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”
Tuesday’s call was the first direct contact between Obama and Karzai since last June, underscoring the White House’s frustration with the Afghan leader’s refusal to sign the security agreement. The pact would give the U.S. a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014, and also allow it to use bases across the country.
The White House repeatedly said it would not leave American troops in Afghanistan without the agreement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Obama’s order to the Pentagon “a prudent step” given the likelihood Karzai will not sign an agreement. However, he said the Pentagon would also continue to make plans for a possible U.S. mission in Afghanistan after this year, which would focus on counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces.
The Pentagon has long had contingency plans for multiple options in Afghanistan. However, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday until now, the military was “not actively planning for a complete withdrawal.”
“Now we will,” the Pentagon press secretary said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey was traveling to Afghanistan on Thursday to visit U.S. military leaders in the country and assess the security situation.
Dempsey said he continues to prefer keeping an American troop presence in the country because of the continued threat of al-Qaida, but said the options for doing so “are far more constrained than we’re currently recommending.”
Obama has weighed options from the Pentagon that would keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country after this year, contingent on the security agreement. However, some White House officials are thought to support keeping a smaller troop presence.