As Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to withstand pressure to sign a bilateral security agreement to keep U.S. forces in his country past 2014, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan told a Senate panel today that there is still "some prospect" that a deal could still be signed by the end of the year.
"The administration is committed to an expeditious signature of this agreement. Delaying signature is in no one's interest," James Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, testified today at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing. "Delay would add another element of uncertainty as the Afghans prepare for their elections. For the United States and our NATO allies it would mean a lack of clarity about our own presence in 2015. That in turn would jeopardize the fulfillment of pledges of assistance that NATO and other countries have made."
While stressing that he sees "little chance" that a deal is not ultimately reached, Dobbins echoed warnings from national security adviser Susan Rice that without a prompt signature of the agreement, known widely as a BSA, the Obama administration "will have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troops in Afghanistan."
"Let me make clear, however, that plans are not decisions and assure you that we are not about to decide to abandon all that we and the Afghan people have achieved over the last 12 years," Dobbins emphasized. "I don't believe that there can be any serious doubt that the Afghan people want the United States and NATO forces to stay and recognize that the bilateral security agreement is a necessary prerequisite."
Before he signs the BSA, Dobbins said Karzai wants to establish a peace process with the Taliban while also ensuring that any soldiers remaining in Afghanistan would not be able to enter Afghan homes under any circumstances.
Sen. Robert Menendez, d-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, warned further delay of any length "will have real implications on the ground" making it more difficult for military commanders to plan while simultaneously drawing into question the U.S.'s ability to meet its obligations to its allies and partners throughout the region.
"President Karzai has in my view unwisely decided to gamble with the lives of millions of his citizens with the delay in signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, testing our patience and threatening the progress made by so many Afghans in partnership with the international community since 2001," Menendez said. "I believe this brinksmanship is unwarranted and frankly insulting to the sacrifices made by the United States military and taxpayers, and it is not in Afghanistan's best interest."
Menendez added that "at some point" the U.S. "has to ask if we should let our long-term interests and our substantial investments in Afghanistan be determined by a lame duck president." Karzai's term ends in 2014.
"If we are not able to finalize the bilateral security agreement, the results are clear: All U.S. troops would have to leave the country, support in Congress for appropriations for the Afghan military and development efforts will diminish and we will not be able to support the Afghan military in any significant way or be able to provide development assistance at the same levels," Menendez said. "Afghans seem to understand this. It's unfortunate that President Karzai doesn't."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the committee, agreed that as Karzai dithers, he creates the impression in the United States that the blood and treasure invested through 12 years of war is unappreciated by Afghans.
"We certainly have a president of a country that's really not speaking for its citizens, and I think everyone understands that and all of us have had encounters with Karzai and understand the irrationality that comes with most dealings with him," Corker said. "He's not speaking for Afghanistan, and we've got to look to the longer view and the Afghan people and not to one individual that's somehow trying to find his place in history."
Dobbins testified that finishing the BSA "will send an important signal" to the region "that the United States will remain engaged, as will its allies, and that we are not going to abandon Afghanistan."
"For the Afghan people, it will reduce anxiety and uncertainty about the future," he said. "A signed BSA will tell the Taliban, who may think that the end of 2014 means the end of international support, that their only path to peace is ending violence, breaking ties with al Qaeda and accepting the Afghan constitution."
Dobbins is scheduled to testify at the House Foreign Affairs committee on Wednesday.