Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — America's top military officer said Wednesday that the impasse over a security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan is encouraging the enemy to take bold actions and could lead some Afghan forces to align with the Taliban to "hedge their bets."
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his commanders in Afghanistan to assess conditions and reassure them that they should focus on the considerable work they have to do this year and not worry about next year.
Dempsey told The Associated Press in an interview that President Barack Obama's order Tuesday to begin actively planning for a total withdrawal was making Afghan military leaders anxious and eating away at their troops' confidence.
Frustrated with Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, Obama ordered the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan's next president, to be elected this spring, may eventually sign a stalled security agreement that could prevent the U.S. from having to take that step.
The administration would like to leave up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end on Dec. 31 to continue training Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. But without the agreement that would give international forces legal standing to stay in Afghanistan, Obama has threatened to pull all troops out, leaving the work to Afghan forces.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Karzai, the first direct conversation between the two presidents since last June. Karzai has refused to sign the pact.
The impasse is having an effect, Dempsey said.
"It is having an effect on the enemy and in some ways I think encourages them, and intelligence supports that," Dempsey told reporters. And, he said, the uncertainty of a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan may encourage Afghan security forces in some parts of the country 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," said Dempsey. "I think a delay in the (security agreement) 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 expects that the Taliban will become more aggressive during the coming summer fighting season.
For Dempsey, Obama's announcement triggered a day of meetings with his commanders and with hundreds of troops in this eastern Afghanistan base in the shadow of the volatile Pakistan border region to explain what it all means. And he emphasized to them that is does not mean that a zero U.S. force is now a foregone conclusion.
He added that while the U.S. can wait until after the spring elections before deciding whether to completely withdraw all forces, that decision will have to be made sometime in the summer.
"We have a pretty clear understanding of, at what pace they must progress in order to -- if it became necessary -- to empty the (war) theater by the end of the year," Dempsey told the AP. He said they are nowhere near the point where the military couldn't make that decision and successfully get all troops and equipment out by Dec. 31.
Obama's announcement after his conversation with Karzai on Tuesday appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai's role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war. The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
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