KABUL, Afghanistan -- A U.S. senator leading a bipartisan delegation to Afghanistan called on President Barack Obama Saturday to announce a decision on his plans for future troop levels in the country on the assumption a much-delayed security pact eventually will be signed with Kabul.
During a visit to Afghanistan, Sen. Kelly Ayotte stressed no American forces would remain in the country without a bilateral security agreement, but she also said Obama shouldn't wait for that to give an idea of what the U.S. presence would look like after the NATO-led combat mission ends at the end of this year.
"I believe that it is time for our president to do this so that the people of Afghanistan understand that we remain committed in Afghanistan," the New Hampshire Republican said, stressing any post-2014 force would be contingent on the pact being signed. "He can no longer delay this decision."
Ayotte, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she also urged President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign the deal, to change his mind. She also criticized the government's decision to release detainees formerly held by U.S.-led forces and considered dangerous.
The top commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that he would feel comfortable with a residual international force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops if the deal is signed. He said America would provide two-thirds of those troops and would keep an additional few thousand forces in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations.
But Obama has yet to make a decision on the size of a post-2014 U.S. force in Afghanistan after a 13-year war that has become highly unpopular among the American public.
"I hope our president will announce as soon as possible that - contingent on signing the BSA and contingent on a responsible way of dealing with the detainees that protects both Afghans and Americans and our allies - that we will leave a follow-on force consistent with Gen. Dunford's recommendations," she said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "That is a number that we cannot go below."
Karzai surprised the international community and many Afghans in December when he ignored the recommendation of an assembly of tribal leaders and other dignitaries to sign it, saying he would leave the final decision to his successor after April 5 elections. Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The three front-runners in a field of nine presidential candidates all have said they would sign the agreement if elected.
"I call on President Karzai to sign the security agreement, but even if he does not we know that every major candidate in your election has committed to signing the bilateral security agreement," she said.
Ayotte was making her third trip to Afghanistan as part of a delegation with Democrats Sen. Joe Donnelly from Indiana and Rep. Stephen Lynch from Massachusetts.
They also warned the Afghans that the U.S. was ready to completely withdraw if an agreement that provides U.S. legal protection for American troops is not signed.
"We're running out of time here ... We're going to have to make a decision soon," Lynch said. "I hope that message goes out not just to Karzai but to the candidates."