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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is in a political standoff with the government of President Hamid Karzai. At issue is what's called a bilateral security agreement that would govern U.S. troops if they stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. President Obama addressed the issue earlier this week in his State of the Union speech.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces; and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida.
SIEGEL: Here's the problem. That if the president started with, it's a very big if. Karzai has so far refused to sign this agreement, despite U.S. threats to pull out entirely without a deal, and for more on what is happening here or not happening, we're joined by NPR's correspondent in Kabul, Sean Carberry. Hello, Sean.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Hi Robert.
SIEGEL: And our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's start with Sean Carberry. Many U.S. and Afghan officials say that this agreement is critical to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Why won't President Karzai sign it?
CARBERRY: Well, that's the question at every dinner table conversation over the last few weeks here, and there are a lot of theories. They seem to be boiling down to two main lines of thought here. One is that he's trying to hold on to power in the waning days of his presidency. There are elections scheduled for April to elect his successor, and as soon as he signs this deal he effectively becomes a lame duck. And people also think he wants to hold this over the election process, to manipulate it so that his favorite successor gets elected.
The second thing is that he's saying he will sign this when a peace process begins with the Taliban, demanding the U.S. start that process. So he appears to think that in his waning days, he can get a peace deal that hasn't happened for the last 12 years, and there's several flaws to this thinking. And the first is that the Taliban have said for years they're not going to talk to Karzai. They don't recognize him as a legitimate ruler.
And secondly, the Taliban oppose this bilateral security agreement. So they have no incentive to talk. They can prevent it from happening by not talking. So Karzai seems to be ceding the power in this situation to the Taliban.
SIEGEL: Well, let's turn from Kabul to here in Washington. Tom Bowman, the U.S. has set several deadlines for Karzai to sign this bilateral security agreement. He's ignored those deadlines. Why is it so important for the U.S. to maintain a force in Afghanistan? Why is it so important that it's led all these deadlines slip?
BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon will tell you, and commanders in Afghanistan will say the same thing, that, listen, the Afghan forces have come a long way. They still need a lot of help. General Joe Dunford, the top American commander in Afghanistan, will meet with the president on Tuesday. And his argument is going to be listen, you gave me a mission, to train the Afghans, assist the Afghans and to mount a counter-terror mission to go after the remnants of al-Qaida and some Taliban leaders.
If you want me to do that mission, I need 10,000 troops to do that. That's the number. And if you don't want to do that, well maybe we should start pulling out. But there are clearly some within the administration, mainly in the White House, and Vice President Joe Biden for years has basically been saying listen, we've done a lot in Afghanistan, it's time to get out of there.
Members of Congress, some of them are saying the same thing. So that's basically the argument we have now.
SIEGEL: Well, is the U.S. position that they could exercise a zero-option and that if Karzai won't agree to a deal that the U.S. would pull out completely? Is he effectively calling Washington's bluff on this?
BOWMAN: I think he is calling Washington's bluff. There are some who are calling for the zero-option. Some White House officials have basically leaked that over the past year, that we could go down to zero. And I've been told interestingly that American defense contractors over there like DynCorp, who have 10,000 employees in Afghanistan doing everything from feeding soldiers to fixing radar dishes, they've been told just within the last few weeks to at least plan for having no U.S. troops in the country by the end of the year.
Most people don't think it'll happen, but it's still, you know, a possibility, most would say a remote possibility.
SIEGEL: Sean Carberry in Kabul, former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in an interview here on MORNING EDITION on Thursday said that Karzai, President Karzai, this is a quote, "has been despondent about the situation with Pakistan." I've heard senior U.S. officials say that Karzai blames all of his problems on Pakistan. How does Pakistan figure into his suspicions about the U.S.?
CARBERRY: Well, he believes that Pakistan controls the Taliban. And he believes the U.S. has significant leverage over Pakistan. So all along he's felt that the U.S. could bring this thing to a close by pressuring Pakistan to basically shut down the Taliban. And so this feeds into his belief that the U.S. is not interested in peace here, that it doesn't have, you know, genuine interests in finishing the war. He essentially says, and his security advisor yesterday said, that the U.S. has to choose between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
One thing, if I can, I just want to jump back to a point that Tom just made about the issue of whether or not the BSA will be signed, whether it was calling Karzai's bluff, one thing people here say is that the uncertainty of this period, of not knowing if there will be a post-2015 mission, is doing horrible damage to the economy here, and it's feeding the Taliban, allowing them to get stronger in this period of uncertainty.
And so that's what Western officials here say is most damaging is that as long as this is not signed, money is leaving the country, and the Taliban are getting bolder.
SIEGEL: I just have a question for both of you. We'll start with Sean Carberry. Would some residual U.S. presence, as it's understood there, spell the difference between an Afghan security force that can defend the country and maintain a stable government, and almost certain defeat at the hands of the Taliban?
CARBERRY: Essentially yes. I've talked to some U.S. military commanders here who are very much convinced that the Afghan forces need the continued support and training and that without that, certainly the Taliban wouldn't overrun or come rolling into Kabul, but they could certainly chip away and start turning the balance against the Afghan forces here.
SIEGEL: Tom Bowman?
BOWMAN: And I would agree with that. I was talking with a general when I was over in Afghanistan back in May and June, and I was asking him about the Afghan forces. He said, well, basically the glass is half-full. They need a lot more support. They have problems with attrition, with illiteracy. There's still a lack of good officers and sergeants in the Afghan forces. But most people think they do need the U.S. forces there not only to train them but almost to steel their spine, too, in the next couple of years.
SIEGEL: Tom, is there some obvious timeline to all this? I mean, is there some point at which it's too late to sign a bilateral security agreement?
BOWMAN: Well, one would think once Karzai leaves after the election, it's in April, if the new president doesn't sign the agreement, that probably is the drop-dead time.
SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon, who was with us here in Washington; and Sean Carberry in Kabul. Thanks to both of you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.
CARBERRY: You're welcome.
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