President Barack Obama did Tuesday what he had to – bluntly warn Afghan President Hamid Karzai that without a security deal, all U.S. troops could leave at the end of the year.
It’s in the best interests of both countries if there is a pact for a more measured pullout that prevents the Taliban and al-Qaida forces from reasserting control. Under the security agreement, as many as 10,000 of the 33,600 American troops still in Afghanistan would stay past 2014 to train the Afghan military and conduct counterterrorism operations. It is no idle speculation to see the risk of not ensuring a smoother U.S. withdrawal. Just consider the carnage in Iraq, America’s other post-9/11 war.
It’s more than understandable why Obama’s patience with Karzai has about run out. The Afghan leader helped negotiate the security agreement, which was then approved by his handpicked council of tribal elders. But he has refused to sign it until after the scheduled April 5 election to pick a new president, if at all.
Meanwhile, Karzai seems to delight in goading the White House, though he owes his power and fortune to its backing. He has accused U.S. forces of colluding with the Taliban, without real evidence. Earlier this month, his regime released dangerous militants from prison over the strenuous objections of the U.S. military.
Tuesday, Obama told Karzai by phone that he has ordered the Pentagon to put together the “zero option” to withdraw all troops. The White House said that the longer there’s no deal, the fewer U.S. troops are likely to stay.
It’s also understandable that the public has tired of the long Afghanistan war. For the first time since it started in October 2001, a Gallup poll released last week found as many Americans saying that U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as saying it was not.
But we have to remember that the 9/11 attacks were launched from the badlands of Afghanistan. We have to remember the sacrifice of so many Americans – nearly 2,200 killed and counting.
An agreement for a small U.S. force to make sure those gains are preserved is in our national interest.
If Karzai won’t do the right thing, Obama has to hope the next Afghan president will.