Joint Chiefs leader: Afghan future grim if no security pact

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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Depicting a grim future for Afghanistan without U.S. help, the top U.S. military officer said Wednesday that Afghanistan's refusal to sign a security agreement with the United States may make the fight more difficult this year, embolden the enemy and prompt some Afghan security forces to cooperate with the Taliban to "hedge their bets."

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent the day with his commanders and troops in Afghanistan working to manage the after-effects of President Barack Obama's order Tuesday to begin actively planning for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year. In back-to-back meetings, he urged them to focus on the considerable military work they have to do and not worry about next year.

In an interview, Gen. Dempsey said the possible exit of all U.S. troops was making Afghan military leaders anxious and eating away at their troops' confidence. He said he spoke with some Afghan leaders after Tuesday's announcement, and they asked him to stay committed to an enduring U.S. presence, and told him that they were doing all they could to get the pact signed.

Mr. Obama spoke Tuesday with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, their first direct conversation since last June. Mr. Karzai has refused to sign the pact. Frustrated with his response, Mr. Obama ordered the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by year's end.

But Mr. Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan's next president, to be elected this spring, may eventually sign a stalled security accord that could let the United States avoid taking that step. The administration would like to leave as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end Dec. 31 to continue training Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. Without the pact that would give international forces legal standing to stay in Afghanistan, however, Mr. Obama has threatened to pull all troops out, and NATO forces would follow suit.

The impasse has an impact, Gen. Dempsey said. "It is having an effect on the enemy and, in some ways, I think, encourages them, and intelligence supports that," he told reporters. The uncertainty of a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, he said, may encourage some Afghan security forces to "hedge their bets."

"There are parts of the country where it seems to be, there will -- with some likelihood ... be some accommodations between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban," Gen. Dempsey said. "I think a delay in the [pact] might accelerate those kind of accommodations. I don't think it will be widespread, by the way, but we do have to be alert to that possibility."

He also said he expects the Taliban to become more aggressive during the coming summer fighting season. Noting that Afghan forces were in the combat lead last year for the first time, he said they did well. "So I think the Taliban has always calculated that they need to up their game this year to confront what they now realize is a pretty credible opponent."

He added that while the United States can wait until after the spring elections before deciding whether to completely withdraw all forces, that decision must be made sometime in the summer.

While Gen. Dempsey visited commanders, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met his NATO counterparts in Brussels this week. And NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the 19,000 troops from other nations would also pull out of Afghanistan after year's end without a security agreement. "Let me stress, this is not our preferred option," he said. "But these are the facts."

The Pentagon is currently planning to cut the total American force in Afghanistan to as low as 20,000 by midsummer, giving commanders the ability to pull all troops out by Dec. 31 if no agreement is reached. There are now about 33,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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