Karzai in DC

Karzai in DC

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for what are being billed as definitive consultations with the Obama administration on the organisation of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan through 2013-14. The broad outline of how America's decade-long occupation of Afghanistan comes to an end is quite clear. But the devil, as always, is in the detail.

Last May, US President Barack Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with Karzai to underline America's strong commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan. Obama followed up by mobilising the support of NATO allies for a decade-long international commitment to finance the Afghan armed forces and provide sustained developmental assistance.

As political support for Western occupation of Afghanistan rapidly evaporates and the financial crisis squeezes defence spending everywhere in the West, the credibility of the declared American strategy has come under a shadow.

There are deep differences in Washington on the structuring of the transition — the withdrawal of US forces and the assumption of security responsibilities by the Afghan national forces in the coming months. Consider for example, the question on how large the residual American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 should be. The US currently has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Obama has already decided that by the end of 2014, American forces will end their combat role in Afghanistan and focus on a different mission: to train and assist the Afghan armed forces as they take charge of the country's security. Besides assisting the Afghan armed forces, the residual force will also be involved in counter-terror duties focused on attacking the bases of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Afghan neighbourhood.

Within this framework, the US military leadership wants to keep as many forces in place as long as possible. Put another way, the generals want to leave the maximum number of troops available for the coming fighting season this year.

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