Karzai on US visit as Obama mulls Afghan troop plan
WASHINGTON — President Hamid Karzai will begin a four-day US visit on Tuesday as President Barack Obama weighs how fast to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and whether to leave a “residual force” behind after 2014.
Foreign combat soldiers are due to exit Afghanistan by the end of next year, more than a decade after a US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime in 2001, but the country remains wracked by Islamist violence.
US officials have reportedly prepared plans for between 3,000 and 9,000 troops to remain to prevent Al-Qaeda militants from re-establishing themselves and to ensure Taliban fighters cannot take the capital Kabul.
But pressure is growing on Obama to end the war rapidly due to deep war weariness in the United States, tightening military budgets and anger over “insider attacks” by Afghan troops on the NATO-led soldiers.
“If Mr. Obama cannot find a way to go to zero troops, he should approve only the minimum number needed,” The New York Times said in an editorial this week that called Karzai’s government “profoundly corrupt”.
Obama will host talks with Karzai at the White House on Friday, the day after the Afghan president meets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
US officials have said a decision could be made during Karzai’s visit on how many troops stay on in Afghanistan after 2014 — a figure that could determine whether the country tips into a widely-feared civil war.
The talks will also include equipping and strengthening Afghan forces, efforts to negotiate peace with Taliban-led insurgents and a long-term security agreement with the United States, Karzai’s office said.
The number of foreign soldiers battling the insurgency in Afghanistan has already fallen to 100,000 from about 150,000. Of those, 66,000 are US troops, down from a maximum of about 100,000.
Afghan army and police are due to take over complete security responsibility from NATO troops by the end of 2014, but there are major concerns they will not be able to face down the country’s many warring factions.
More than 60 foreign soldiers were killed in 2012 in “insider attacks” that have bred bitter mistrust and threatened to derail the training of Afghan security forces.
Karzai has expressed support for keeping some US troops in Afghanistan after 2014 but sensitive details — including immunity for American soldiers and the transfer of detainees into Afghan custody — are still under negotiation.
Washington scrapped plans for some troops to remain in Iraq after Baghdad refused to grant US soldiers immunity from prosecution.
Karzai’s relationship with Washington has been troubled in recent years and there are fears that attention on his country, heavily dependent on international aid, could plummet after the NATO withdrawal.
A White House statement ahead of the visit said that Obama envisioned “an enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan”.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stressed that any residual force would focus on Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the Taliban government that was ousted after the 9/11 attacks.
Friday’s talks will come just days after Obama put the finishing touches to his security team, having named his picks to head up the State Department, Pentagon and CIA.
Karzai is expected to visit Asadullah Khalid, his spy chief who was wounded in an attack in Kabul last month, at an American hospital on Tuesday.