The Pakistani government is delivering a harsh new message to the Obama administration: The current chaos in Afghanistan means that the White House urgently needs to re-evaluate its plan to withdraw all American troops from the country by the end of 2016.
The White House has long had a vexed relationship with Pakistan, which is both a vital ally in the American push to decimate al Qaeda and a country that U.S. officials believe provides shelter and safe haven to an array of militant leaders. The relationship between the two countries has improved since the election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has launched a large-scale military campaign designed to clear extremists out of northwestern Pakistan. On Wednesday, a series of airstrikes -- including several allegedly carried out by CIA drones -- killed at least 50 people in the region.
Despite the warming ties, however, a senior Pakistani official said Wednesday that his government was worried that the Obama administration would destabilize Afghanistan if it carried through with its drawdown plans, which would send at least 1.5 million refugees -- including unknown numbers of militants -- streaming across the border into Pakistan.
The official said the administration had based its withdrawal plans on three conditions, none of which have yet been met: free and fair elections leading to a peaceful transfer of power; the quick signing of a bilateral security arrangement allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country; and building an Afghan army capable of taking responsibility for securing their country as the U.S. footprint shrinks.
But with the front-runners in Afghanistan's presidential elections accusing each other of widespread electoral fraud, Taliban attacks increasing, and the security agreement still not signed, the senior Pakistani official said the entire withdrawal plan needed to be re-examined with an eye toward keeping American troops in the country beyond 2016.
"The whole basis of the drawdown has been challenged," he said. "When you make a plan based on certain assumptions and conditions, if those conditions are not met, I think the plan requires a [re-evaluation]."
The official said that lawmakers he spoke to on Capitol Hill expressed "worry" and "anxiety" about what could happen in Afghanistan and Pakistan if the withdrawal plans proceed on schedule. He said administration officials whom he spoke with agreed with his government's grim analysis of Afghanistan's current political and security situations, but said they also gave no indication that they were willing to consider changing their withdrawal plans.
"They do not say they will re-evaluate it, but they do not tell us, 'no, you are wrong,'" he said.
Indeed, President Obama, speaking at the White House Wednesday afternoon, pointedly emphasized that "our combat mission in Afghanistan ends this year." Under the current White House plan, the American combat mission in Afghanistan will come to an end this year as the number of U.S. troops falls to 9,800, less than a third the number there as of May. Nearly 5,000 troops would depart by the end of 2015, with the vast majority of the remaining troops leaving by the end of 2016.
The decline in U.S. troop levels comes as the American drone war inside Pakistan also shows signs of winding down. CIA drones carried out at least 117 strikes in 2010, but that number fell to 28 last year and just five so far this year, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks those attacks.
The senior Pakistani official said the decline in U.S. drone strikes reflected, in part, the administration's willingness to let Islamabad continue on again, off again peace talks with the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. With those talks now at a standstill, he said, "They've been unleashed again."
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