The US ambassador in Kabul cast doubt yesterday on whether US forces would be able to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by President Barack Obama's 2014 deadline, saying key issues are far from being agreed, including how many troops, if any, will remain and on what terms. Washington does, however, appear reconciled to Hamid Karzai remaining as President through that process, despite rocky periods in the relationship.
Speaking from Kabul, where he had just attended the opening session of the loya jirga, the gathering of tribal elders convened by President Karzai, Ryan Crocker, said that he was reasonably optimistic that the 2014 timetable would be met. But the recently arrived ambassador also stressed that the US withdrawal was far from a done deal, pointing out that a joint security pact between the US and the Afghan government was still at an early negotiating stage and that there was a presidential election between now and then.
Mr Crocker may have been showing due diplomatic caution, although his more immediate purpose may have been to deter Mr Karzai's opponents, including the Taliban, from taking an early departure of US troops for granted.
The Taliban have become increasingly brazen, illustrated by the growing frequency of attacks in and near the capital and their boast at the weekend that they had obtained confidential security plans for the loya jirga in advance, casting doubt on the Afghans' ability to police their own security.
Asked about the Taliban's claim, Mr Crocker said that the document could have been a forgery, "but even if it wasn't, it was a very general outline and very, very widely distributed, so it is not too surprising that someone might have left it around somewhere".
Mr Crocker said that the security agreement under negotiation "would lay out the framework for strategic partnership well beyond 2014 in a wide range of areas – the economy, education... as well as security". He said the Afghans should "have the security lead throughout the country" by then.
If US troops remained after the agreement came into force, he said, "it will be at the Afghans' request". He indicated that such a scenario was quite likely, as there were "major weapons systems" that were due to be delivered after 2014.
The year 2014, he went on, "is not the date when the United States and the international community just walk away from Afghanistan... We don't want to repeat the mistakes of 1990; we got out when the Soviets left – and that was the road to 9/11."
Since coming to office, the Obama administration has done little to conceal its impatience with, and even contempt for, Mr Karzai. The late Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was scathing about Mr Karzai's competence and integrity.
After Mr Crocker's arrival in Kabul in July, however, the administration's tone appeared to change. Yesterday, the ambassador had only praise for the Afghan President, whom he has known since the Bonn peace conference 10 years ago. He said he had come to see him as "a true Afghan nationalist... seeing nation above sect and ethnicity", someone who had "great courage, commitment, dedication and vision", and had done "the hardest job in the world for almost 10 years, through a period when the crises were unrelenting".
Mr Crocker's words suggested the US wants to minimise political and security complications as it pursues its military drawdown, and believes that Mr Karzai is strong enough to survive. The loya jirga, attended by tribal leaders from all over Afghanistan, may be seen as proof of his authority.