WASHINGTON - The announcement by U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Michele Flournoy in Congressional testimony Mar. 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 to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban leadership.
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 IPS.
Given that commitment to the U.S. military, a U.S. negotiator or foreign mediator would not be able to propose a complete U.S.-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 U.S. and NATO forces, the source said.
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and veteran U.N. 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 last Tuesday.
Even if the Taliban were to agree to the U.S. 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 administration deliberations.
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 U.S. airpower at Bagram Airbase 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 U.S. 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 the 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 U.S. SOF raids on a number of occasions – most recently on Nov. 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."
Obama's acceptance of the principle that U.S. 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 mid-November.
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 U.S. combat had ended in August 2010 after a transition to Iraqi responsibility for security, with remaining U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Feb. 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.
The first meeting on that "Strategic Partnership Declaration" took place in Kabul Mar. 13-14. The U.S. and Afghan delegations issued a two-paragraph statement that made no reference to the question of continued U.S. 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 Mar. 15, however, Flournoy referred for the first time publicly to the post-2014 military presence. "I anticipate that some U.S. 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 Petraeus about what could be one of the most sensitive aspects of the new policy.
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 U.S. 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".
Petraeus acknowledged, however, that "we've got nearly four years to go until that time."
The determination to use the Senate testimony to ensure that the policy was publicised 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.
The decision to launch an "increased diplomatic effort" on Afghanistan was also made in conjunction with the December strategy review, according to Flournoy's Mar. 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 recognising the constitution of Afghanistan – were actually going to be the outcomes of negotiations with the Taliban.
The diplomatic track was to be pursued through a regular tripartite meeting with Afghanistan and Pakistan scheduled for Feb. 23-24, according to knowledgeable sources. It had to be rescheduled after the Jan. 27 detention of CIA consultant Raymond Davis by Pakistani authorities in Lahore on murder charges.
Nevertheless, the clarification of administration negotiating policy was included in a speech by Clinton at the Asia Society Feb. 18. And the tripartite meeting had been rescheduled for Mar. 26.
The Pentagon apparently wanted the still covert policy of long-term U.S. 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 specialising in U.S. 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.