More than two years after it embraced a revised strategy to end the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is still wrangling with its Afghan and Pakistani allies over two of the most important elements of the war plan.
In Kabul, Afghan leaders want suspected insurgents captured in special operations raids to be handed over to them immediately. Across the border, the Pakistanis want the right to approve in advance drone strikes on al-Qaeda, Taliban and other targets in their country. U.S. officials say that one risks losing valuable intelligence in Afghanistan and the other could tip off the enemy in Pakistan to impending attacks.
The negotiations reflect the differences and suspicions that divide the U.S. from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Their support is essential to the NATO-led coalition’s hopes of withdrawing most of its remaining 128,000 forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, while retaining the leeway to pursue militants who threaten the U.S. and its allies.
“The U.S. objective in both of these negotiations is to try to ensure that the U.S. has the ability to protect its national security interests, especially against transnational terrorist groups,” said Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington. “The distrust makes it very difficult to give away any concessions” on either side.
President Barack Obama is under pressure, even from some of his more supportive Democrats in Congress, to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
‘Time to Lean Forward’
“It is time to lean forward on transitioning the responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan government,” said Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, at a hearing last month with Marine General John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “I believe we need to look for ways to push this process to go as quickly as we can safely do it.”
The Obama administration wants to be able to fill the gaps in the capabilities or willingness of the military in Pakistan or the 352,000 police officers and National Army soldiers in Afghanistan to act, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
In Afghanistan, the latest sticking point is how long the U.S. can hold Afghan prisoners captured in nighttime operations for interrogation before handing them over to local authorities, according to a U.S. official and a congressional staffer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.
Handing suspected Taliban and other insurgents captured in special operations night raids over to Afghan custody immediately could cost the U.S. valuable intelligence because it often takes days or longer to extract and verify information from captured militants, said two U.S. intelligence officials.
Worse, said one of the officials, in some cases the Afghans may be eager to take control of such “night raid” prisoners before they can reveal the names or plans of collaborators in the Afghan government or security forces.
Calls for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 may not settle issues of force size or legal immunity for prosecution, an issue that was the death knell for an agreement to keep U.S. forces in Iraq beyond 2011.
The Obama administration had hoped for a security agreement to cover such points last year, said Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger platoon leader in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. is operating under a 2003 security agreement without an expiration date that allows either side to withdraw at any time.
“Senior U.S. defense officials have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan quite recently hammering out what the size, disposition and composition of a U.S. stay-behind force would look like,” said Exum, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security policy group in Washington.
“It’s in the interests of Afghanistan to strike some kind of deal,” Exum said.
On the Pakistani side of the border, the U.S. intelligence officials said requiring prior approval from Pakistan for drone strikes in the remote frontier areas risks allowing supposed Pakistani allies to alert the targets in advance. They said that no Pakistani official was informed in advance of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May 2.
“The threat picture is not going to get a lot better over the next couple of years,” said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia, and a former special operations adviser to the U.S. military. “There’s a strong concern that the U.S. keep several of these groups off-balance, that it can continue to target, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, a range of these groups.”