twists Taliban withdrawal
demands By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The announcement by United
States Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michele
Flournoy in congressional testimony on March 15
that the United States would continue to carry out
"counter-terrorism operations" from "joint bases"
in Afghanistan well beyond 2014 signaled that
President Barack Obama has given up the
negotiating flexibility he would need to be able
reach a peace agreement with the Taliban
Flournoy's revelation meant
that the administration intends to maintain a
long-term troop presence in Afghanistan regardless
of any negotiated settlement with the Taliban, as
a source familiar with internal deliberations on
Afghanistan confirmed to Inter Press Service
Given that commitment to the US
military, a US negotiator or
foreign mediator would not be
able to propose a complete US-North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) troop withdrawal in
return for a Taliban commitment to end its armed
resistance and cut its ties with al-Qaeda. That
has long been viewed as the core bargain
underlying a potential peace agreement.
Months of conversations with Taliban
leaders who had been detained by the Pakistanis
last year revealed that the Quetta shura,
the council of Taliban leadership, was ready to
negotiate a deal, according to a source who has
been thoroughly briefed on those interrogations.
The Taliban informants were in agreement
that such a deal would have to involve complete
withdrawal of US and NATO forces, the source said.
Ambassador Thomas R Pickering and veteran
United Nations diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who
co-authored a study on negotiating peace in
Afghanistan published last week, concluded that a
"guaranteed withdrawal of foreign forces would
almost certainly be part of a deal", as they wrote
in the New York Times on Tuesday.
the Taliban were to agree to the US demand for
severing its relationship with al-Qaeda, however,
the present administration policy, apparently
reached during the strategic review last December,
calls for the United States to continue to deploy
at least Special Operations Forces (SOF),
according to the source familiar with
In the event
of an agreement with the Taliban, the SOF units
would not target the Taliban but would be used to
hunt down al-Qaeda personnel and to ensure that
Afghanistan is not a source of instability in the
region, IPS was told. The same policy decision
also calls for retention of US airpower at Bagram
air base based on the same justification.
Despite the uniform position of Taliban
leaders on the issue, the official assumption
underlying the present policy is that the Taliban
would choose to negotiate an agreement allowing a
limited US military presence in the country,
according to the knowledgeable source. IPS was
told that a key factor in the administration's
calculus is that it would be relatively easy
politically for the United States to keep SOF
units and airpower - as distinct from infantry
troops - in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Ironically, SOF units have generated the
greatest popular antagonism to foreign military
presence, because of targeted raids that have hit
the wrong individuals and killed civilians. Afghan
President Hamid Karzai has called for an end to US
SOF raids on a number of occasions - most recently
on November 13, 2010.
"They have to go
away," Karzai said of the targeted raids. "If
there is any raid, it has to be done by the Afghan
government within the Afghan law."
acceptance of the principle that US SOF units and
airpower should remain in Afghanistan indefinitely
was apparently part of the strategy adopted
officially last December after being leaked to the
New York Times by Pentagon officials in
That strategy, presented to
the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon in November,
paralleled the Obama administration strategy in
Iraq, which claimed that the phase of US combat
had ended in August 2010 after a transition to
Iraqi responsibility for security, with remaining
US forces supposedly involved only in training,
advising and supporting the Iraqi forces.
The Afghanistan strategy identified the
end of 2014 as the equivalent of the transition to
a limited US role in Iraq. But it anticipated tens
of thousands of troops remaining in Afghanistan
after the transition for purportedly non-combat
roles, just as some 50,000 US combat troops
remained in Iraq after the transition date. They
have continued to participate in combat.
What was not leaked to the Times in
November, however, was that both SOF units and
airpower would remain behind for combat purposes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
announced in her February 18 speech that
negotiations would begin with the Karzai
government on a new "Strategic Partnership
Declaration", which she said would "provide a
long-term framework for our bilateral cooperation
in the areas of security, economic and social
development and institution building". But she
gave no hint that the administration had already
decided to keep forces and base access
indefinitely beyond 2014.
meeting on that "Strategic Partnership
Declaration" took place in Kabul on March 13-14.
The US and Afghan delegations issued a
two-paragraph statement that made no reference to
the question of continued US troops or access to
bases. That suggested that the discussion was
still at the level of principles and generalities.
In her prepared statement to the Senate
Armed Services Committee on March 15, however,
Flournoy referred for the first time publicly to
the post-2014 military presence. "I anticipate
that some US forces will remain in Afghanistan in
order to train and assist the ANSF [Afghan
National Security Forces] and conduct combat
counter-terrorism operations," she said.
But someone had also tipped off Senator
Joseph Lieberman, generally considered the most
militarist member of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, to ask Flournoy and top US commander in
Afghanistan General David Petraeus about what
could be one of the most sensitive aspects of the
Lieberman asked Flournoy to
comment on the possibility of a "jointly operated
system of bases in Afghanistan between us and the
Afghans" after 2014. That brought an unambiguous
confirmation by Flournoy that the US was committed
to leaving troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to
conduct "joint counter-terrorism operations".
Petraeus likened "the concept of joint
basing, the concept of providing enablers for
Afghan operations and so forth" as "frankly
similar to what we have done in Iraq since the
mission changed there" and said it would "also be
appropriate in Afghanistan".
acknowledged, however, that "we've got nearly four
years to go until that time".
determination to use the senate testimony to
ensure that the policy was publicized appears to
have been related to the knowledge that Obama
administration was finally moving to get
negotiations with the Taliban started - and that
making explicit the policy of maintaining military
forces in Afghanistan indefinitely would scuttle
the chances for starting such talks.
decision to launch an "increased diplomatic
effort" on Afghanistan was also made in
conjunction with the December strategy review,
according to Flournoy's March 15 statement. The
first move by the administration was to make it
clear that what had appeared to be preconditions
for negotiations with the Taliban - an end to all
ties with al-Qaeda and recognizing the
constitution of Afghanistan - were actually going
to be the outcomes of negotiations with the
The diplomatic track was to be
pursued through a regular tripartite meeting with
Afghanistan and Pakistan scheduled for February
23-24, according to knowledgeable sources. It had
to be rescheduled after the January 27 detention
of Central Intelligence Agency consultant Raymond
Davis by Pakistani authorities in Lahore on murder
Nevertheless, the clarification
of administration negotiating policy was included
in a speech by Clinton at the Asia Society
February 18. And the tripartite meeting had been
rescheduled for March 26.
apparently wanted the still covert policy of
long-term US combat presence in Afghanistan to be
explicit and on the record before the process of
sounding out the Taliban had gone too far.
Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.