Flournoy's revelation meant that the administration intends to maintain a long-term troop presence in Afghanistan regardless of any negotiated settlement with the Taliban, as a source familiar with internal deliberations on Afghanistan confirmed to IPS.
Given that commitment to the U.S. military, a U.S. negotiator or foreign mediator would not be able to propose a complete U.S.-NATO troop withdrawal in return for a Taliban commitment to end its armed resistance and cut its ties with al Qaeda. That has long been viewed as the core bargain underlying a potential peace agreement.
Months of conversations with Taliban leaders who had been detained by the Pakistanis last year revealed that the Quetta Shura, the council of Taliban leadership, was ready to negotiate a deal, according to a source who has been thoroughly briefed on those interrogations.
The Taliban informants were in agreement that such a deal would have to involve complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, the source said.
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and veteran U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who co-authored a study on negotiating peace in Afghanistan published last week, concluded that a "guaranteed withdrawal of foreign forces ... would almost certainly be part of a deal," as they wrote in the New York Times last Tuesday.
Even if the Taliban were to agree to the U.S. demand for severing its relationship with al Qaeda, however, the present administration policy, apparently reached during the strategic review last December, calls for the United States to continue to deploy at least Special Operations Forces (SOF), according to the source familiar with administration deliberations.
In the event of an agreement with the Taliban, the SOF units would not target the Taliban but would be used to hunt down al Qaeda personnel and to ensure that Afghanistan is not a source of instability in the region, IPS was told. The same policy decision also calls for retention of U.S. air power at Bagram Airbase based on the same justification.
Despite the uniform position of Taliban leaders on the issue, the official assumption underlying the present policy is that the Taliban would choose to negotiate an agreement allowing a limited U.S. military presence in the country, according to the knowledgeable source. IPS was told that a key factor in the administration's calculus is that it would be relatively easy politically for the United States to keep SOF units and airpower -- as distinct from infantry troops -- in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Ironically, SOF units have generated the greatest popular antagonism to the foreign military presence, because of targeted raids that have hit the wrong individuals and killed civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for an end to U.S. SOF raids on a number of occasions -- most recently on Nov. 13, 2010.
"They have to go away," Karzai said of the targeted raids. "If there is any raid, it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan law."
Obama's acceptance of the principle that U.S. SOF units and air power should remain in Afghanistan indefinitely was apparently part of the strategy adopted officially last December after being leaked to the New York Times by Pentagon officials in mid-November.
That strategy, presented to the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon in November, paralleled the Obama administration strategy in Iraq, which claimed that the phase of U.S. combat had ended in August 2010 after a transition to Iraqi responsibility for security, with remaining U.S. forces supposedly involved only in training, advising and supporting the Iraqi forces.
The Afghanistan strategy identified the end of 2014 as the equivalent of the transition to a limited U.S. role in Iraq. But it anticipated tens of thousands of troops remaining in Afghanistan after the transition for purportedly non-combat roles, just as some 50,000 U.S. combat troops remained in Iraq after the transition date. They have continued to participate in combat.
What was not leaked to the Times in November, however, was that both SOF units and air power would remain behind for combat purposes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in her Feb. 18 speech that negotiations would begin with the Karzai government on a new "Strategic Partnership Declaration," which she said would "provide a long-term framework for our bilateral cooperation in the areas of security, economic and social development and institution building." But she gave no hint that the administration had already decided to keep forces and base access indefinitely beyond 2014.
The first meeting on that "Strategic Partnership Declaration" took place in Kabul Mar. 13-14. The U.S. and Afghan delegations issued a two-paragraph statement that made no reference to the question of continued U.S. troops or access to bases. That suggested that the discussion was still at the level of principles and generalities.