Afghan President Hamid Karzais visit to the United States this week comes at a critical time as the Obama administration weighs how many troops to leave in Afghanistan when the majority of American forces pull out of the country at the end of 2014.
President Karzai and Afghans want a long-term bilateral security arrangement that will maintain an American military presence there for years to come to prevent al-Qaida and other extremists from plunging the country into a civil war in trying to re-establish control that they lost following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Afghan officials have said the talks would also include economic and political support, but the main stumbling block will be the level of forces.
Most of the 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to return home by the end of 2014, when Afghan police and security forces will assume responsibility for protecting Afghans from militants. Between now and then, the role of American forces will shift from combat to training and supporting Afghan police.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Pentagon is preparing options that would leave 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which are down from the 30,000 troops previously discussed. Troop levels will be defined by Americas future role there. Lower troop levels might provide training to Afghan security forces but not be large enough to protect against resurgent militants. It would also restrict U.S. anti-terrorism operations.
One obstacle to any U.S. presence is the administrations insistence that American troops be granted immunity from prosecution by Afghan courts, which has so far been rejected by Kabul. President Karzai, however, has indicated he would be willing to accept the immunity in exchange for other guarantees to help build up the Afghan military.
Americans and Afghans are weary of a war that has claimed more than 2,000 American lives and thousands of wounded. It is time to bring the troops home as quickly and as safely as possible leaving a residual force sufficient to protect diplomatic personnel and perform the mission expected of them, which President Obama must make clear to the nation .