WASHINGTON - U.S. willingness to wait to sign a new security pact with the next Afghan president offers hope that a deal can still be made, but the ongoing delay could mean fewer American troops and fewer dollars for the impoverished country, the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan said Friday.
American support of the war continues to wane with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement, which would provide a legal basis for some U.S. troops to stay in the country after the international combat mission ends this year. The agreement was to have been signed last fall.
"Unfortunately, President Karzai's decision not to sign the accord that he negotiated, that he, in fact, is not seeking to change, and that he agrees is important to Afghanistan has thrown this timetable badly off," James Dobbins said in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama told Karzai that he's open to waiting until later this year to conclude the bilateral security agreement with Karzai's successor but that "this delay would not be without cost." Despite widespread support in his country for signing the deal, Karzai has said he would prefer that his successor be the one to sign it.
"While we still continue to plan for a residual force to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and to conduct limited counterterrorism missions, the scale of this commitment may well wane as uncertainty over our welcome persists, and we will also need to plan for the alternative of full withdrawal," Dobbins said.
Dobbins spent most of his speech citing scores of examples of progress that has been made in Afghanistan related to health, education, the upcoming presidential election, business and development and the building of institutions. But he said those advances remain fragile.
He also cited a recent study, ordered by Congress, which said international trainers and advisers will be needed in Afghanistan at least through 2018. The study was conducted by CNA Strategic Studies, a federally funded research group.
"In the absence of a continued train, advise and assist U.S. and NATO military mission, Afghanistan's descent into more widespread violence and political disintegration is likely to be more rapid," Dobbins said.
He acknowledged Americans' fatigue over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but he said most Americans favor a gradual, responsible withdrawal and a residual force to stay in the country after the end of this year.
"This margin of support is narrow and likely to diminish further as long as uncertainty about our welcome persists," Dobbins said.