Memoir complicates Afghan security deal

The mistrust between U.S. and Afghan officials deepened last week over revelations contained in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new memoir, and Kabul’s release of prisoners the U.S. deems dangerous, raising new doubts about U.S. troops staying in the country beyond 2014.

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Excerpts from Gates’s memoir published Friday exposed attempts by then-U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to unseat Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2009 presidential elections.

Afghan officials said the revelations were not new to them but bolstered their belief that an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after their combat mission ends in 2014 should be signed only after the U.S. has complied to crucial requests.

“All the current problems between Kabul and Washington have roots in a deep mistrust between the two sides,” Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, said in an interview with The Hill.

“The fact that we have put conditions for the signing of the BSA [bilateral security agreement] is to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. As it is said: once bitten, twice shy,” he added.

Details contained in Gates's tell-all memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, about the Obama administration's attitude toward the Afghan War has sent shock waves through Washington, as excerpts were first published in news reports Tuesday.

According to Gates, President Obama was deeply ambivalent toward his Afghan War strategy of surging U.S. forces into Afghanistan in 2010 and was disengaged from the war.

"As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his," Gates wrote. "For him, it's all about getting out."

Gates's account coincides with those of other former U.S. officials who said that, unlike Karzai's cozy relationship with former President George W. Bush, his relationship with Obama was cold and distrustful.

It is that mistrust that's driving Karzai's demands for as many concessions as he can get before signing the BSA, former U.S. officials say.

Specifically, Faizi said before Karzai signs the BSA with the U.S., he wants the U.S. and Pakistan to convince the Taliban to agree publicly to join the peace process and talk to the Afghan High Peace Council.

In addition, he wants an “absolute” end to all U.S. military operations on Afghan homes and villages, Faizi said.

“For us, for the signing of the BSA, it is not the time which matters. It could be sooner or later. But it is the action which matters. The ball is on the U.S. side,” he said.

However, U.S. officials are pressuring Karzai to sign the agreement “within weeks” and threatening to start planning for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops, despite a classified cable from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham that the possibility of a swift signing was unlikely.

Karzai’s decision to release 72 of 88 Afghan detainees the U.S. deems “dangerous” might also delay the BSA.

“If we cannot conclude a BSA promptly, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday.

Officials won’t say when they will start planning the drawdown but that it’s necessary in the absence of a BSA, due to the hundreds of decisions that have to be made in advance of a withdrawal.

"There are hundreds of drawdown decisions that have to be made, such as on base closures. It's difficult to plan without the certainty a BSA will provide,” said a Defense official on background.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann said, although Gates’s memoir and the detainee release might make getting the BSA signed before April more difficult, he believes it will eventually be signed.

“It’s another area of friction, but I don’t think it really changes whether the BSA is signed. An overwhelming majority of Afghans want it,” he said.

The Obama administration is also under tremendous pressure to complete a BSA from Republican lawmakers, who blame the unraveling of security in Iraq on the president’s failure to conclude a similar agreement.

Last week, al Qaeda militants retook parts of Fallujah and Ramadi — where U.S troops suffered fierce fighting and numerous casualties during the Iraq War.

On Thursday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blamed al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq on the administration.

“A status of forces agreement with Iraq should have been agreed to, and this administration failed to deliver,” Boehner said.

Neumann said, although the Obama administration is “deeply conflicted” over its pursuit of a troop presence in Afghanistan post-2014, it knows it can’t walk away and squander U.S. military gains made over the last decade.

“The president would like to leave, but he understands he can’t leave. The administration is conflicted between knowing what they want to do but can’t,” Neumann said.