By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Mar. 1, 2014 – President Barack Obama’s recent statement of willingness to let Afghanistan’s next president sign a critical bilateral security agreement may give hope to Afghans who feared NATO-mission troops would withdraw from the nation by Dec. 31, a senior U.S. military official said this week.
On the sidelines of the NATO Defense Ministerial here Feb. 26, the military official spoke on background with several U.S. reporters.
“Yesterday was the first time I’d ever heard our government say there would be a willingness to sign the BSA with another president,” the official said.
Inside Afghanistan there is concern about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA and a potential U.S.-ISAF shutdown of the 2015 mission there, and great fear that the United States would not wait to deal with another administration, he observed.
“We’ll have to see what the Afghan people say,” the official said, but added that U.S. willingness to deal with a new administration after Afghanistan’s April 5 presidential elections could help relieve uncertainty among people there.
Karzai won’t be running for re-election as president because of term limits.
The senior military official said he would advertise this willingness among his Afghan counterparts and make sure they know this offers hope “that might not have been there the day before yesterday.”
The official said at the time of the interview he hadn’t seen Obama’s directive but had read news reports about the White House readout of a Feb. 25 telephone call between Obama and Karzai.
The United States requires the Afghan government’s approval of the BSA before committing troops to a post-2014 NATO train-advise-assist mission in Afghanistan called Operation Resolute Support.
The BSA, along with a separate NATO Status of Forces Agreement and agreements with non-NATO nations that contribute troops to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission, would give all participating nations a legal justification for the new mission that would begin Jan. 1, 2015.
On the call, Obama told Karzai that because Karzai has refused to sign the BSA, Obama directed Defense Department leaders to make sure plans are in place to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Dec. 31.
“On the other hand,” Obama said, according to the White House readout, “should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core al-Qaida could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan.”
The official said his own concerns about such a delay in plans for 2015 extend first to its impact on Afghan and Afghan security force confidence, then on hedging behavior in the region, coalition cohesion and, only after those considerations, concern about the impact on the physics of the military campaign, which he says military leaders have in control.
“Clearly,” he added, “the political environment as a whole creates concern and uncertainty among the Afghan leadership and the Afghan forces. That’s one of our challenges.”
Whether a BSA agreement is signed or not, the senior U.S. military official said nothing changes for the 2014 NATO ISAF mission until July.
“Regardless of the [decision] for 2015, I would not change the plan that's in place between now and the summer,” the official said.
“In July if we still don’t have a decision … I probably would do some things that would allow us to go either way. Then, as you get to the fall, you start taking a look at whether you're going to empty the theater by the end of December or … set [up] for Resolute Support,” he explained.
The official took a piece of paper and drew a large circle with a smaller circle inside, representing the Resolute Support mission structure.
“In July I will have established the inner circle, [which] is the Resolute Support mission,” he said. “Forces that are deployed this July will [perform] the tasks in the organizational construct of Resolute Support.”
The outside concentric circle represents forces still performing residual ISAF tasks until the end of December, the official said, and gradually over that time will withdraw from the theater.
“The force that's going to deploy in July, even if there's still no  decision, has been trained, organized and equipped to do the Resolute Support task,” he said.
That force, he added, is designed to provide core-level train-advise-assist mission elements.
One of the most important jobs this year for the Afghan national security force is to support the April 5 presidential elections, the senior U.S. military official said.
The Afghans want their election to be inclusive, credible and transparent, he added.
“We largely focus on the inclusivity piece,” the official noted, which includes technical and security elements. That means supporting the Afghans to make sure voters have access to the polls and public information, and providing an environment in which people can believe the vote will make a difference, the official said.
“From a technical and a security perspective I feel pretty good,” he said. “The technical piece [involves] distributing ballot material, building polling sites and assessing security. The security piece is a Ministry of Interior-led effort to ensure security at the polling places.”
The Afghans also want credibility and transparency during the election, and the official thinks these will be the most challenging goals to achieve.
“This is not my specific lane,” he said, “but we’re creating the conditions within which [credibility and transparency] can take place.”
The senior U.S. military official said none of the decisions yet to be made about 2015 affect the last year of the ISAF campaign.
“We have a mandate to do certain things, we have certain authorities, we have certain resources, and I plan on applying those until the very last day of the year,” he said. “No one has suggested that we’re not going to continue to do in 2014 what has been the plan since the  Lisbon Agreement.”
The official said he’s proud of the progress made by the Afghan forces.
“If you ask me today whether the Afghan forces are capable of providing security to the Afghan people, the record speaks for itself,” he said.
But if no BSA is signed and no ISAF troops are on the ground in Afghanistan next year, he added, progress made to date “will not be sustainable.”
Four critical areas still must be addressed, he said. The first involves Afghan security institution capacity -- or MOD (Ministry of Defense) and MOI (Ministry of Interior) capacity building.
In the United States, the Defense Department has people who specialize in acquisition, planning, programming and budgeting, and other people who are experts in managing supplies and identifying requirements.
“There's a big machine in the department that allows forces in the field to be supported,” the military official said.
At the ministerial level in Afghanistan, he said, “we’re only eight or nine months into a concerted effort to develop MOD and MOI capacities. That’s one of the areas of most concern.
“So if you talk about executing a budget,” the military official continued, “the Afghans … aren't capable of executing a complete budget right now, in large part due to a lack of expertise in contracting, acquisition and those kinds of things, and the ability then to project requirements, which is a huge piece of what we do in the Department of Defense.”
In Afghanistan, he said, neither the intelligence nor the aviation enterprises will be mature by the end of 2014. And the special operations capability, he said, inextricably linked with intelligence and aviation, still needs work.
“Those four gaps would be the focus of Resolute Support,” he said.
Without the 2015 mission, he said, “I think we'll see deteriorating security conditions over time as a result of deteriorating Afghan security force capability” caused by simple things like inconsistent distribution of parts, fuel, pay and supplies.
Conditions in the region also affect what ISAF can accomplish in Afghanistan, the official said.
“Uncertainty about 2015 and beyond creates hedging behavior in the region, and all the nations there have to think about how they're going to protect their interests [if] there is no coalition presence at the end of 2014,” he added.
“My sense is that our presence has been and would be a stabilizing presence in the region, allowing some difficult issues to be worked through,” the official said, including complex relationships among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Critical work also remains in the region involving the more than 2,000-kilometer-long porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The enemy has sanctuary in Pakistan,” from which operates “the most virulent strain of the insurgency,” the official said.
“To achieve our end-state in the region, we need a comprehensive approach to address extremism that knows no boundaries. My recommendation is for [the United States to take] a broader regional approach,” he added.
The U.S. military recommendation for the region is in the context of a broader whole-of-government approach, the official said, to achieve the end-state the president has identified.
To be successful in Afghanistan, he added, “you have to address the challenges that are in Pakistan.”