Frustrated by Karzai, U.S. Shifts Afghanistan Exit Plans

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from The Wall Street Journal,

New Military Approach Would Give Obama Flexibility on Afghan Troop Decision.

The U.S. military has revised plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to allow the White House to wait until President Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security pact and settling on a post-2014 U.S. troop presence, officials said.

The option for waiting reflects a growing belief in Washington that there is little chance of repairing relations with Mr. Karzai and getting him to sign the bilateral security agreement before elections scheduled for the spring.

“If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” said a senior U.S. official. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the BSA and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”

The military plan is the most significant example to date of how the U.S. has sought to minimize its reliance on Mr. Karzai, whose refusal to sign the security agreement amid a flurry of anti-American statements has upset Washington policy makers. The White House has said Mr. Karzai’s refusal has raised prospects that President Barack Obama will order a complete U.S. troop withdrawal this year. Afghan officials had no immediate comment.

Mr. Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have signaled their displeasure with Mr. Karzai by limiting their contacts with him. The U.S. and Afghan leaders haven’t held a videoconference call to discuss the war effort since the summer, officials said. Mr. Hagel visited Afghanistan in December but didn’t meet Mr. Karzai. Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, had a frosty meeting with Mr. Karzai in Kabul in November.

The new message from the U.S. military amounts to an about-face from what some Pentagon leaders had been saying publicly for months.

Now U.S. military leaders say a further delay is less of a concern, from their perspective. “The real challenge for the BSA delay is not associated with military planning,” one senior U.S. military official said.

To step up the pressure, officials said, Mr. Obama is expected to ask the military to initiate planning for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan if Mr. Karzai doesn’t sign the security pact soon, most likely before a NATO summit in Brussels this month.

By scaling the drawdown to accommodate additional delays, U.S. military leaders wanted to make sure logistical hurdles wouldn’t be the deciding factor for Mr. Obama if he decides to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai, in refusing to sign the security pact, has said his successor should make the decision. The Afghan president has been playing what U.S. officials described as a “game of chicken” with the White House. “We’re just pulling our car off the side of the road,” a senior U.S. official said.

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