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Senators irked by lack of details about Afghanistan withdrawal

| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 7:27 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Facing sharp criticism from a Senate panel, a senior Obama administration official expressed optimism on Thursday that the United States will reach an agreement with the Afghan government allowing American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014.

James Dobbins, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said President Obama is mulling a range of options for the size of the military presence at the end of next year. But Dobbins told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that as the Afghans build their country, they won't stand alone.

“We've made significant progress on the text of a new bilateral security agreement,” Dobbins said. “Of course, without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan, we would not remain. But we do not believe that that's the likely outcome of these negotiations.”

But Democrats and Republicans on the committee voiced frustration over the shortage of detail on troop levels. With Afghans slated to elect a president in the spring, it is key to let them know they won't be abandoned by the United States as the Taliban claims, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has to decide if he is willing to accept a longer-term troop presence by negotiating an agreement with acceptable terms, he said.

“For our part, I believe that President Obama should signal to the Afghans and our allies what the post-2014 U.S. troop presence will look like governed by a security agreement,” Menendez said. “The lack of clarity on this point has led to too much hedging in the region.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel's top Republican, said the uncertainty over the troop levels is “almost embarrassing” and is undermining the American effort in Afghanistan.

“This administration ... has tremendous difficulty making decisions,” Corker said. “I think the administration has got to quit looking at its navel and make a decision on what the force structure is going to be in Afghanistan.”

The United States and its allies in Afghanistan last month formally handed over control of the country's security to the Afghan army and police. The handover paved the way for the departure of coalition forces — numbering about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will be replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise the Afghans.

Although Obama remains undecided on how many troops will remain in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.

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