White House: Obama and Karzai to discuss role of U.S. troops past 2014

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will discuss the roles and missions of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the war "ends" in 2014, but they will not decide or announce the number of U.S. troops to stay there, top White House officials said Tuesday.

Karzai is already in Washington but won't have his official meetings until Jan. 10 and 11 at the State Department and the White House, respectively. Today, Karzai is visiting his spy chief, Asadullah Khalid, at an undisclosed American hospital. On Jan. 10, he'll visit the State Department, where he will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attend a working dinner. On Jan. 11, he'll visit the White House, sit down with Obama, attend a working lunch, and then participate in a joint press conference.

"This week's visit comes at a critical moment for the two presidents to take stock on where we are in the transition and then to provide guidance going forward on a host of issues," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on a conference call today. "As we look to 2013, reductions in U.S. troops will continue, but they will be guided by the transition that the two leaders agree upon. Similarly, just as we'll be discussing the 2013 transition, the two leaders will be discussing any potential support for Afghanistan from the United States beyond 2014."

The negotiations over the agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence past 2014 began last November and are being led on the U.S. side by Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Warlick. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy has said that the State Department would need U.S. military troops in Afghanistan to protect the department and help it well past 2014 in a range of areas.

"Rather than developing our own capabilities, we will be depending on DOD support for functions such as a quick reaction force, personnel recovery, fuel support, explosive ordnance disposal, and medical assistance, by 2015," Kennedy said in October.

But Rhodes described the nature of the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan as more limited, and he even said there's a possibility there will be no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 at all.

"The nature of U.S. support for Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be focused on two precise missions, training and equipping of Afghan security forces and continued efforts on the counterterrorism front against al Qaeda and their affiliates," said Rhodes. "But this is not a visit during which President Obama will be making decisions about U.S. troop levels in the immediate future or beyond 2014. It's a visit where the two leaders will be able to consult about those issues, and then in the coming months President Obama will be able to make those decisions in consultation with his national security team."

NSC Deputy National Security Advisor Doug Lute said that the Obama-Karzai discussions will focus on the authorities, privileges, and immunities that the Afghan government might afford U.S. troops after 2014. The immunities issue is crucial because the White House cited the lack of immunities for U.S. troops in Iraq as a key reason negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence there failed in 2011.

The Cable asked Rhodes and Lute if the U.S. government would require immunities for U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be approved by the Afghan legislature, considering that the Obama administration demanded legislative approval for immunities in the Iraq case. Rhodes and Lute declined to answer.

Rhodes and Lute also declined to confirm or deny the Fox News report that claimed outgoing ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen has submitted three recommended options for U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan post-2014, none of which would leave more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers there.

"The way the president approaches this is not aiming to keep a certain number of troops within Afghanistan," Rhodes said. "The objective of the bilateral security agreement negotiations is not to accomplish a number of U.S. troops in the country; it is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan national security forces. And there are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve U.S. troops, some of which might not."

"They're going to be talking about missions and authorities, not numbers," said Lute.

The officials will also discuss the ongoing talks among the Karzai government, the Pakistani government, and the Afghan Taliban, which are meant to pave the way for peace talks to end the war. Both officials downplayed any notion that increased Pakistani involvement means a decreased role for the United States, and they said the process must be Afghan-led.

The Cable also asked the officials if they were still working on the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier currently in the custody of the Taliban. The administration had been working on a deal to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders who are being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Those negotiations broke down last March and as of October were going nowhere, according to senior Afghan officials.

"Sergeant Bergdahl's release and safe return to his family is one of the objectives of our approach to try to get into peace talks with the Afghan Taliban," said Lute. "And these are talks that we imagine to be led by the Afghan government. So, yes, his safe return is one objective, but there are a whole list of other objectives as well that have to do with the logic of getting Afghans to talk to Afghans about the future of the country."

The Cable

Horse-racing gambler funding pro-Hagel campaign

The new and expensive campaign to defend defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is being funded, at least partially, by a Democratic money man who made his fortune betting on horses and who has connections to the liberal pro-Israel group J-Street.

The fight over the Hagel's nomination to replace Leon Panetta atop the Pentagon has been well underway ever since The Cable first reported in November that Hagel was being vetted by the White House. But without White House assistance before Monday's official nomination and without a staff of his own, Hagel was ill-equipped to fight the onslaught of negative publicity coming from his many critics, and his critics were able to set the initial frame and tone of the coming confirmation debate.

But over the last two weeks, Hagel's friends in the Democratic political world have come to his aid, principally by rounding up senior former officials to write supportive op-eds and funding an advertising effort to spread the world that Hagel does in fact have bipartisan support.

The Cable has learned that a large chunk of that pro-Hagel money is coming from one Democratic donor, gambling legend Bill Benter, who is working with the Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm, to support pro-Hagel advertising. Podesta facilitated Benter's funding of a week of ads in Politico's Playbook must-read daily newsletter, written by Mike Allen, a spokesman for Benter confirmed to The Cable.

"The Bipartisan Group issued its letter to set the record straight on Chuck Hagel's character and on the positions taken by that Group.  One of the Group's long-time supporters, Bill Benter, paid for the advertising so that the letter could reach a wider audience," the spokesman said. "The public interest would be better served if those organizations which spent much more on attack ads against Senator Hagel would also disclose their donors."

Here's what the Playbook message said:

"**A message from The Bipartisan Group: The Bipartisan Group recently wrote President Obama to express strong support for Senator Hagel, reportedly under consideration for nomination as Secretary of Defense. Our polarized life needs leaders with the kind of independence of conscience and mind Chuck Hagel's service to our country has exemplified. http://bit.ly/TnWWLB **"

FP's Situation Report, which first revealed Podesta's involvement in the pro-Hagel effort last week, reported that the Politico ad buy cost about $35,000 and that Bipartisan Group paid for it.

The Bipartisan Group is a loose conglomeration of foreign policy heavy weights that have joined together on certain occasions to weigh in on national security issues.

"The Bipartisan Group is an informal grouping of leading foreign policy experts, most of them former senior government officials, who are connected with various leading policy institutes and academic institutions, such as the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute, and the U.S./Middle East Project," a representative of the group told The Cable.

The group organized its first letter in 2008 and its members include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Lee Hamilton, Brent Scowcroft, Paul Volcker, Frank Carlucci, William Fallon, Sandra Day O'Connor, and ... Chuck Hagel.

"It was a group that got together (for these kinds of things) and called themselves the Bipartisan Group," said Larry Korb, defense expert at the Center for American Progress.

Benter has been involved in funding various Democratic political and policy efforts over the years. Sources told The Cable his money has contributed to organizations including the the Center for a New American Security, the New America Foundation, the Democracy Alliance, and the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA. Benter has also contributed to projects at the Center of American Progress, run until recently by Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, who led President Barack Obama's transition team and who works part time at the State Department.

The Podesta Group is a lobbying and public relations firm run by John's brother Tony Podesta. Their client list includes several major defense contractors, although those contractors are not directly funding the pro-Hagel campaign, despite some reports to the contrary.

Benter made his fortune by becoming what Wired magazine called "the most successful sports bettor in the world." He devised a system in Hong Kong that uses computer models to place bets on horse races and then masks those bets by funneling the money through proxy betting accounts.

Benter was most recently in the news because he admitted to being a business associate of one Consolacion Ediscul of Happy Valley, a Hong Kong suburb. As Ben Smith wrote in Politico and Eli Lake wrote in the Washington Times, Ediscul was discovered to be the largest single funder of J-Street, the liberal pro-Israel group that is backing Hagel in the face of attacks from other parts of the pro-Israel community.

Ediscul contributed $811,697 to J-Street in 2008-9, according to the group's 990 forms, about half of the money the group raised that year. A Filipino resident of Hong Kong, she was not known to be involved in pro-Israel politics and the money is widely assumed to have come from Benter. Benter has never confirmed nor denied this allegation.

Steve Clemons, a long-time supporter of Hagel's, said there's nothing wrong with Benter's activity and pointed out that the anti-Hagel crowd is superbly well funded by undisclosed rich donors.

"Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moscowitz are regulars at this and I think it is great that progressive funders step forward to support a fair and honest discourse on these issues," he said. "There's been too little funding put behind candidates like Hagel and too much funding spent on the smears. It's nice to see some balance."

The anti-Hagel machine has been funding ads through a range of organizations. They include the Emergency Committee for Israel, which counts Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol as one of its board directors, and the Log Cabin Republicans, who took out a full page ad criticizing Hagel's record on gay rights Monday in the Washington Post.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the Democratic leaning National Security Network, said that both sides will ramp up their spending on the Hagel nomination now that he has been named officially. The amount of cash flowing into both sides is a problem, she said, but not one either side seems anxious to solve.

"How is this different from how everything in Washington gets funded?" she said. "There's a transparency question, but every day somebody is pushing something into the media and somebody has to pay for it."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images