BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) — America's top military officer said Wednesday the U.S. threat to withdraw all troops out of Afghanistan if no security pact is signed may encourage the enemy and lead some Afghan forces to align with the Taliban.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday's announcement of President Barack Obama's order to begin planning for a total withdrawal also makes Afghan military leaders anxious and eats away at their troops' confidence.
Speaking at the end of a long day of meetings with his commanders in Afghanistan, Dempsey said he wanted to make sure they knew there is still a lot of work to do this year, and that they can't let worries about next year distract them.
Obama, frustrated with his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai, ordered the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan's next president may eventually sign a stalled security agreement that could prevent the U.S. from having to take that step.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Karzai, the first direct conversation between the two leaders since last June. The White House has become increasingly frustrated with Karzai, who has refused to sign a security pact that the White House says is crucial to keeping a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes at the end of this year.
In Afghanistan Wednesday, Dempsey said he was worried about the impact of withdrawal speculation on the enemy.
"It is having an effect on the enemy and in some ways I think encourages them, and intelligence supports that," Dempsey told reporters. And, he said, the uncertainty of a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan may encourage Afghan security forces in some parts of the country to "hedge their bets."
"There are parts of the country where it seems to be, there will - with some likelihood ...be some accommodations between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban," said Dempsey. "I think a delay in the (security agreement) might accelerate those kind of accommodations. I don't think it will be widespread by the way, but we do have to be alert to that possibility."
He also said expects that the Taliban will accelerate its effort during the coming summer fighting season.
For Dempsey, Obama's announcement triggered a day of meetings with his commanders and with hundreds of troops in this eastern Afghanistan base in the shadow of the volatile Pakistan border region to explain what it all means. And he emphasized to them that is does not mean that a zero U.S. force is now a foregone conclusion.
He added that while the U.S. can wait until after the spring elections before deciding whether to completely withdraw all forces, that decision will have to be made sometime in the summer.
"We have a pretty clear understanding of, at what pace they must progress in order to -- if it became necessary -- to empty the (war) theater by the end of the year," Dempsey said in an interview with The Associated Press and another reporter. He said they are nowhere near the point where the military couldn't make that decision and successfully get all troops and equipment out by December 31.
But noting that the U.S. has planned to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, Dempsey said a decision to go below that number is "well into the summer."
With no sign that Karzai will sign the forces agreement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama "has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014." However, he added that the U.S. remains open to keeping troops in Afghanistan if an agreement can be signed later this year, likely after the April Afghan elections.
That decision appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai's role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war. The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
The White House insists it won't keep any American troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying in the country. While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement before that time, officials said the size and scope of any U.S. mission could shrink the longer Obama waits.
Obama's call with Karzai coincided with key military meetings on Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is meeting with his NATO counterparts in Brussels this week.
The U.S. and Afghanistan agreed to details of a security pact last year, and the agreement was also endorsed by a council of 3,000 Afghan tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga. But Karzai caught U.S. officials off guard by then declaring he wanted his successor to sign the agreement.
It's unclear whether Afghanistan's new president will be any more likely than Karzai to do so. There is no clear front-runner among the 11 candidates running to replace the president, who is constitutionally ineligible for a third term and has not endorsed a successor.
The longer the U.S. waits to decide on its future in Afghanistan, the more expensive and risky a full withdrawal would become. With less time to move troops and equipment, the military will have to fly assets out rather than use cheaper ground transportation.
The Pentagon's biggest challenge will be closing large military facilities, including the Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Shutting down a massive base typically takes about 10 months, but military officials said they are prepared to do it in a much shorter — although far more expensive — period if necessary. Military officials said commanders would still like to have about six months.
The Pentagon is currently planning to cut the total American force in Afghanistan to as low as 20,000 by midsummer, giving commanders the ability to pull all troops out by Dec. 31 if no agreement is reached. There are currently about 33,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Robert Burns and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Cassandra Vinograd in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.