Afghan election workers carry ballot boxes and election materials on donkeys to deliver to polling stations in Dara-e-Noor district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 4, in advance of elections that took place the next day. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)
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The likelihood of a long-term U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is growing after elections there in early April showed pro-American candidates winning at the polls.
But a final bilateral security agreement that would clear the way for up to 10,000 U.S. troops to remain for another decade may still be months away, causing headaches for commanders who are still unsure whether to plan for a military mission beyond the end of this year.
The April 5 elections resulted in two front-runners, longtime opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani, who have both repeatedly said they will sign an agreement with the U.S. if elected.
But it will likely be another month before election results are finalized. And if the final poll numbers show neither candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote, the Afghan constitution calls for a runoff election.
A runoff is a virtual certainty, said Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghanistan expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“That means this will drag on until late summer, August or September,” Majidyar said in an interview.
Delaying the replacement of the current president, Hamid Karzai, who has staunchly refused to sign an agreement with the U.S., creates significant logistical problems for the American commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Dunford is likely to head into the latter half of 2014 unsure whether he’ll be overseeing a complete withdrawal of the roughly 33,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan or laying the foundation for an enduring post-combat mission that will leave as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in place to continue to support the Afghan army and conduct limited counterterrorism operations.
Dunford said recently that he is “pretty comfortable that up until September I can manage multiple options,” but after that, the uncertainly creates a “high-risk” situation.
“My risk of conducting an orderly withdrawal … start to go up,” Dunford told reporters during a visit to Washington in March.
“We went back and we did the math, and we said, all right, how much equipment do we have? How many airplanes can you land every day? How many airplanes do you need to lift this equipment out? How many people do we have? And we have about 102 days’ worth of work to do,” Dunford said, referring to the time required for an actual withdrawal.
The April 5 elections have allayed fears that Karzai would retain power despite his official departure from the presidential palace. His closest ally among the candidates, Zalmai Rassoul, fared poorly at the polls, according to preliminary results.
One hopeful sign for Pentagon leaders eager to finalize the long-term mission came in the days after the election. One top Karzai official signaled that a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and the NATO alliance could be signed before an official transfer of power.
Afghanistan’s foreign affairs minister, Zarar Ahmad Osmani, said peaceful elections were a key condition for the Afghans and, now that it is satisfied, he hoped to finalize the agreement with the U.S. before Karzai leaves office. U.S. officials have signaled that they would accept a formal agreement from a top official other than Karzai, such as Osmani.
Majidyar said he believes Osmani will sign an agreement and clear the way for a long-term U.S. mission.
Yet Karzai’s post-presidential role in Afghanistan remains unclear. His anti-American views — which include conspiratorial claims that Americans are responsible for attacks attributed to Taliban insurgent groups — have intensified in recent months. And he may prove to be a long-term problem for the U.S. military mission there.
“He may stay relevant because he has been in Afghanistan for the past 12 years. He is the only face that we’ve had of Afghanistan. He has built a vast network of allies and sponsors across the country and among tribal leaders,” Majidyar said.
“The next president might just want to have good relations with Karzai.”