I think this is going to be an important story and, in case you have not heard about it already, I wanted you to hear it here first. According to several sources (including the AP) the US and our NATO Allies are meeting on Tuesday to discuss the eventual turning over of responsibility to Afghan forces and the withdrawal of US and NATO troops –by the end of 2014. That is three and a half years after President Obama has told the US public we will begin bringing the troops home.
The plan is that by Tuesday, a one-day international conference will result in giving Americans and Europeans a date for when their involvement in Afghanistan may begin to come to an end. It will also give President Hamid Karzai a chance to show whether his struggling government is making progress toward running the country.
The delegates will endorse the goal of gradually turning over security to Afghan forces by the time Karzai leaves office at the end of 2014.
The Afghan government and the international community are expected to agree on a plan to decide which of the 34 provinces would be ready for Afghan control and when. The communique however makes no mention of international troop levels during the transition period.
If NATO follows the model used in Iraq, the coalition will likely keep substantial numbers of troops in Afghanistan through much of the transition to help train Afghan forces and to intervene if the Afghans cannot control security and prevent the Taliban from mounting a comeback in provinces cleared of major insurgent forces.
Although Obama said in December that U.S. troops would begin coming home in July 2011, he did not say how many troops would leave then. Critics complained that the date signaled to the Taliban that all they had to do was hold out until the Americans and their allies were gone.
Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the number of U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan “could be as few as a couple of thousand,” but was once quoted as saying next July’s drawdown would mean “a lot of people moving out.”
In London, a senior British diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because final details have not yet been finalized, said the conference would likely agree that the process of handing over control to Afghan forces would begin "early next year".
The diplomat said a NATO conference in Lisbon in October would decide which areas would be handed over immediately. A conference working paper on security says that during the transition, NATO troops may “remain in the lead in specific districts” of provinces nominally under Afghan control.
Ahead of the conference, representatives of Britain and Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, said some troops may have to remain past 2014 to help train Afghan forces.
Speaking to reporters, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, expressed skepticism that the Afghans will be ready to take over security by 2014, saying “in my personal assessment, it might take longer.”
“But again it depends on how quickly they are able to train their armed forces, their civilian law enforcement agencies, to take on the responsibility of security and protection of the ordinary Afghan citizen,” said Quereshi, whose government has longtime ties to insurgents. He said Pakistan was ready to help the Afghans achieve stability “because we feel that a stable, peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is leading the U.S. delegation, told reporters the Kabul conference “is going to show more Afghan ownership and leadership, which is something we’ve been pushing.” She said the U.S. is “pressing the Afghan government at all levels to be more accountable, to go after corruption,” but that the U.S. also had a responsibility to improve management of its programs.
This whole notion of setting the date so far off is an important change. Here is a clip of Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat that Chairs the Armed Services Committee, from just 3 weeks ago stating clearly on CBS's Face the Nation that the July 2011 date, promised by President Obama, is "important".
2 Other Important News Tidbits:
1) Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the USDA will reconsider ouster of Shirley Sherrod, who resigned over apparent racial remarks captured on video
2) As I predicted last week, the US Senate has broken the filibuster and approved the extension of Unemployment Benefits. The Senate vote was 60-40, which was the minimum needed to pass the measure. It sill needs a last vote in the House, but that should be mostly a formality.