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Middle East and North Africa

U.S. may pull out of Afghanistan sooner than expected

Although earlier in his most recent term United States president Barack Obama promised to cease American combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with an accompanying large troop pullout, word has surfaced this summer that Obama is seriously considering moving that deadline up, out of an increasingly frustrated relationship with Afghani president Hamid Karzai.

The corruption of Karzai’s administration has been apparent to the international community for years, but the straw that broke the camel’s back for Obama seems to have been Karzai’s continuous stalling and slowing down of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, which many, including Obama, view as crucial for peace in Afghanistan. 

Last month, the U.S. attempted to engage in peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, but Karzai repudiated the talks, accusing the Obama administration of going behind his back to negotiate peace with the Taliban and Pakistan at Afghanistan’s expense.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been tense for the past few years, as border issues with the Durand Line, refugees, and Islamist insurgencies have continued to wear away at both countries’ resources—and stores of patience for one another.

The Afghan government has insisted that the U.S. publicly treat Pakistan as the main obstacle to peace and security in the region, and commit full resources to Afghanistan which the U.S. would otherwise distribute to both countries in the fight against the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.

Although relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have certainly had rough patches over the past few years, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would fully repudiate Pakistan to Afghanistan’s benefit.

In addition to the issue with Pakistan, the Karzai regime also did not wish American peace talks with the Taliban to go forward because Karzai believed it would imbue insurgent fighters with undue legitimacy. Although this was certainly the school of thought in the U.S. under former president George Bush, who famously said that the U.S. “did not negotiate with terrorists,” it is less in vogue under Obama, whose advisors have recommended a pragmatic approach, building a rapport with all the region’s important players, including the Taliban.

Not only is the pullout date now up in the air, but Pentagon spokesperson George Little has commented that Obama has not made a final decision as to how many troops will be left in Afghanistan after 2014, or whenever the final pullout date may be. The American special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the “zero option” of leaving no troops behind is not believed to be the likely outcome.

However, the “zero option” has historically been an effective threat to reel Karzai back into productive negotiations, so it may not stay entirely off the table through this period of difficult U.S.-Afghanistan relations. Indeed, the more Karzai balks at talks with the Taliban and compromises with Pakistan, the more Obama might use it as a stick in carrot-stick persuasion techniques.

“if Karzai won’t negotiate an arrangement, then they [U.S. troops] simply can’t stay,” says CNN correspondent Barbara Starr.

By Laura Gates

Source: The New York Times, CNN, Huffington Post

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