After a report that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is engaged in secret talks with the Taliban, Republican senators blamed the development on the Obama administration -- for broadcasting a desire to leave troops there only until 2017, when the president leaves office.
“The reason [Karzai] did that is because we're telling that we're leaving,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Washington Examiner Tuesday afternoon. “What would you expect him to do if everybody is out by 2017… he may be paranoid but there is a basis for his paranoia.”
Key administration officials Tuesday briefed a bipartisan group of senators, including McCain, on the situation in Afghanistan after the New York Times reported that Karzai in recent months has had “clandestine” but so far unsuccessful talks with the Taliban to try to reach a peace agreement.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also met Tuesday with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as well as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Adm. William McRaven, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.
While the discussions between Karzai and the Taliban appear to have made little progress toward an accord, they may help explain Karzai's efforts to distance himself from the U.S. in recent months.
Despite pressure from Obama and other U.S. officials, Karzai has refused to sign a status of forces agreement that would allow a residual American force to remain after 2014 for security purposes. His about-face has frustrated administration officials after Karzai helped negotiate the deal and the Afghan legislative body approved it by a wide margin.
In recent weeks, Karzai has gone so far as to accuse the United States of being involved in some of the insurgent attacks in the country, speculating that Washington hopes to destabilize his regime.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that by now Karzai seems dead-set against signing the agreement and that the U.S. will have to wait until April for the Afghan presidential election, when his successor will be chosen.
Until that time, Chambliss said the Obama administration should try to get all of the Afghan presidential candidates to publicly commit to signing the agreement if elected.
“Irrespective of whether [Karzai] signs it or not, the United States has made a commitment in blood as well as money in Afghanistan and we've made significant progress there,” he said. “To waste all of that effort and human sacrifice would be a travesty and it would be on the hands of this administration.”
The Pentagon has recommended that the Obama administration, in negotiations with Kabul, push for a troop level of 10,000 to remain to help train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. Biden and other senior White House aides favor leaving a much smaller force.
In late January, the Pentagon reportedly recommended that the White House push for leaving a residual 10,000 troops – down from the 60,000 there right now and a high of 180,000 when Obama first took office.
In order to win White House support, the Pentagon reportedly recommended keeping them there only until 2017 — when Obama leaves office — after originally advising that the troops should stay for a decade.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said Obama has made no decisions about the troop numbers, “if there are to be troops beyond 2014.”
“When he makes that decision, contingent upon a [bilateral security agreement] being signed, we'll have more details on it for you,” Carney told reporters during his daily briefing.
“I don't doubt that some senators envision a world in which U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan for decades,” he added. “Some senators envisioned a world in which U.S. troops remained in Iraq for decades. That's not the president's vision.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration's failure to negotiate a residual troop presence in Iraq had terrible consequences for that country, as violent sectarian clashes gave al Qaeda an opportunity to reclaim key areas.
“I think we're learning a lesson in Iraq in what happens when you totally pull out – and the military is saying we ought to leave a strong presence and the president ought to listen to it,” he said.