Bloomberg News

Afghan War Allies Risk Fracture Over Troop Withdrawal Timing

February 01, 2012

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who is stepping down from the No. 3 Pentagon post this week, urged that allies fighting in Afghanistan coordinate their withdrawal of troops and commit the money needed to fill the gaps they leave behind.

Flournoy stressed the need for an orderly transition days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week accelerated the pace of his country’s withdrawal.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Chicago summit in May should lead to a detailed plan for troop levels leading to the anticipated handover of security control to the Afghans by the end of 2014, Flournoy told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 23 as she prepared to leave office this week.

“Some countries may be wanting to put their own plans on the table at that point,” Flournoy said. “What we’re emphasizing is the importance of us all coordinating.”

Sarkozy preempted such planning with his Jan. 27 announcement after a Paris meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying France will withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2013, a year ahead of schedule. The French president shortened the timetable after Afghan soldiers killed five French troops in two incidents in the past month.

President Barack Obama and other leaders in the 50-nation Afghan war coalition are under pressure to speed a withdrawal because of their own budget crises and waning public support at home. Obama last year announced he’d cut the 97,000 U.S. troops by more than a third before this September, and other nations are reducing their forces.

Seeking Commitments

“In Chicago, the U.S. wants countries to make some sort of long-term commitment” financially to the Afghan national security forces, said Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington. Officials have estimated the Afghan government may need $4 billion to $6 billion a year at first to supplement its own funding for the Afghan army and police.

The timing and scale of the U.S. exit haven’t been decided beyond the reduction of 33,000 American troops by September, Flournoy said.

Taliban militants may be split over whether to wait for the U.S. and its foreign partners to leave or to proceed with negotiations to end the conflict, Flournoy said.

A political settlement takes on added urgency amid lingering concerns that the Afghan security forces may not be strong enough to counter the insurgency once the U.S. and other foreign troops leave, Wadhams said.

Highest-Level Female

Flournoy, 51, leaves her post as undersecretary of defense for policy on Feb. 3. Obama has nominated her deputy, James Miller, to replace her.

As the highest-ranking female civilian to hold office at the Pentagon, Flournoy had been considered a prospect to become the first female U.S. Defense Secretary. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last year picked another undersecretary, Ashton Carter, to move into the deputy secretary slot.

Flournoy announced in December that she would leave the department to spend more time with her family. She is married to Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould. They have three children.

She said she needed to re-balance her life with more attention to her family and planned to support Obama’s re- election this year, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Flournoy left her stamp on major policy reviews in the past three years, said John Hamre, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies policy group in Washington.

‘Secretary Some Day’

“Michele could well become secretary some day,” said Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary. “It will help her to broaden her base of activity on defense matters to include personnel policy issues and acquisition issues.”

On Iran, Flournoy rated as “very low” the risk that the U.S. would miscalculate in a way that would prompt an unintended conflict.

“What worries me is the irresponsible rhetoric and activities that we see on the Iranian side, whether it’s terrorism, support for proxies,” she said.

“We’ve urged them to be more restrained in their activities,” she said, without elaborating how the messages were conveyed.

Flournoy also has led talks with China in the past three years aimed at elevating military relations to the level of regular, substantive talks held on economic and diplomatic issues. She said defense talks with Chinese leaders have broadened and, in the last round in December, even included discussions about the fallout from the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

Strategic Intentions

“The key areas where we need to make progress is greater understanding of one another’s strategic intentions,” she said. “I spend a lot of time trying to explain that our objective is not to contain China.”

The U.S. is seeking to encourage China to integrate into the international community and commit to resolving disputes without the use of force, she said.

“We need to see a lot more transparency” from China, she said. “We see aspects of their military modernization that don’t make sense to us unless you assume they are seeking to deny others freedom of access, freedom of navigation and the ability to protect international interests.”

--Editors: Terry Atlas, Justin Blum

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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