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During Speech, Obama Softens Tone On Afghan Pullout


President Obama's State of the Union speech acknowledged the obvious about Afghanistan. The U.S. wants to keep troops in the country after this year but says it won't do that unless President Hamid Karzai signs a new security agreement, so Americans made themselves dependent on Karzai, who has repeatedly put off signing as he prepares to leave office. This week, President Obama said only that the U.S. could still keep troops there if someone signs.

A man who knows all the players in this drama is Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the country under President Bush.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think the administration has decided not to go for the so-called zero option, which was to use Karzai's refusal to sign the agreement now and say: We wanted to stay but Karzai has refused, so we're coming home. That would have been the popular thing to do. But that would have been, I think, dangerous, certainly for Afghanistan because - and they need U.S. military support and, most importantly, financial support. And besides, it would have also had negative effects on our ability to conduct counter-terror operations against the remaining al-Qaida elements in Pakistan.

So I think it would've been important for us to stay but it's vital for Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: The Obama administration had signaled that if Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai did not sign a security agreement that let's U.S. troops stay beyond 2014, in 2013 that it'd be too late. They said you've got to sign this in 2013 or we've got to start withdrawing. Apparently that deadline wasn't real. So what really is the deadline?

KHALILZAD: I think that has been a problematic approach, to put it diplomatically, because we have set deadlines and then those deadlines have passed and that had emboldened Karzai and has led him to believe that Afghanistan is the single most important piece of territory for the United States in the world and no matter what he does, we will accommodate his concern.

I've told him when I've seen him in recent times, look, don't overplay your hand.

INSKEEP: But he did blow past this deadline. He seems to have gotten away with it, so what really is the deadline by which the United States needs to have some kind of agreement in place in order to keep its troops there?

KHALILZAD: What is needed, what is appropriate in my view, is to have a posture that the United is willing to sign it with the current government or wait two months. There is an election coming and there will be a new president of Afghanistan. All the major candidates have said they will sign the agreement because the agreement is very popular.

INSKEEP: Americans have been very frustrated by the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai. We've heard a couple of times in recent weeks from John Podesta, a newly appointed advisor to the president. This is Mr. Podesta, late last year, just before he joined the White House staff, talking about the president of Afghanistan.

JOHN PODESTA: Karzai's really gone from maddeningly unpredictable to dangerously erratic.

INSKEEP: So that was John Podesta a few weeks ago. Let's listen to him this week.

PODESTA: President Karzai, I think, has done everything he possibly could in the last couple of weeks and months to make the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan more difficult.

INSKEEP: Sounds like he's poisoned relations with the administration. But you know Hamid Karzai well. Is there a more sympathetic view that you can take of him?

KHALILZAD: Yes, there is. He was a great partner at the beginning, but a number of things have brought about changes in Karzai's behavior, and I think it largely has to do with Pakistan. Karzai, from the very beginning, has been despondent about the situation with Pakistan, which is regarded an ally of the United States, has been a sanctuary for the Taliban.

Now he's become conspiracy theorist where he thinks we are in collusion with Pakistan to allow this to justify our presence, put at risk...

INSKEEP: His conspiracy theory is that the U.S. is behind the Taliban, essentially.

KHALILZAD: And otherwise why would the U.S. not use its enormous leverage, as he sees it...

INSKEEP: To clean up Pakistan.

KHALILZAD: ...and tell Pakistan this will not do, this has to stop.

INSKEEP: You've given reasons why it would be a bad idea to leave Afghanistan. People ask about staying. Can you really work with a government that's this corrupt? Can you really make lasting changes in Afghanistan and get your money's worth, so to speak, for the treasure as well as blood that you're spending.

KHALILZAD: A lot has already been achieved. Look at the number of kids going to school, including girls. Look at the infrastructure. Life expectancy has gone up. No doubt we've made some mistakes. Afghan corruption, there have been some resources wasted, but it would be a mistake to believe, in my judgment, that we have not achieved anything in Afghanistan. We have achieved a lot.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Khalilzad, thanks very much for coming by.

KHALILZAD: Oh, it's great to be with you.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spoke with NPR yesterday, and we're learning today more about Afghan corruption. A U.S. inspector general has revealed the findings of auditors who say not one of Afghanistan's 16 government ministries can reliably keep U.S. aid from being wasted or stolen. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.