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Zero US troops in Afghanistan: real possibility or negotiating tactic?

It's called the 'zero option' – virtually no US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Whether it would advance US security aims is debatable, but it arises again as Obama and Afghanistan's Karzai butt heads over terms of keeping American forces on scene.

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The US is set to draw down its troops in Afghanistan from 63,000 currently to about 34,000 in February. That number is expected to remain stable to help provide security backup during the Afghan national elections planned for April and afterward to help guide Afghan security forces through the summer fighting season.

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The White House has suggested that Obama would review the pace of the 2014 drawdown after this summer, to take into account the performance of Afghan forces in this year’s fighting season. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that decisions on US troop levels in Afghanistan are not “imminent.” Concerning any post-2014 residual US force, he noted that the US still has a “year and a half” to work that out with Afghan authorities.

Most military and Afghanistan experts say it would be difficult for the US to pursue its two core objectives – counterterrorism, and training and support of Afghan security forces – with no military presence other than perhaps a few hundred soldiers at the Embassy in Kabul.

“The downside challenges of pursuing our key interests while having no forces in the region are still immense,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was the first commander of combined forces (US and NATO) in Afghanistan in 2003 and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Without a residual force, the US would have no military presence in the broader Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he says. That would be a contrast to the Persian Gulf region, where the US maintains a substantial presence.

“The administration has talked about an ‘enduring presence’ in Afghanistan, but the objectives it has laid out would be much more difficult with zero troops,” Barno says.

The counterterrorism objective aimed at Al Qaeda would be “much more challenging and complex” if the US had to rely on offshore military resources, he says. Moreover, “day-to-day intelligence gathering,” a crucial activity, would be difficult to replace.

Barno also cautions against using postwar Iraq as a model for how the zero option might work in a postwar Afghanistan. “Iraq is a far more modern country” with a more extensive infrastructure, he says, not to mention that Iraq has oil income while Afghanistan “has no ability to generate significant income,” at least not until its mineral wealth can be tapped.

The US has no troops in Iraq because the Iraqi government ultimately would not accept immunity for US troops from local laws. Karzai’s resistance to granting immunity is what could doom any post-2014 US military presence in Afghanistan, he says.

“Legal immunity from Afghan law is a sine qua non for us,” Barno says.

If Afghans are worried about rising chatter concerning a zero option for US troops, Barno says, they should direct their objections about that outcome to their own officials negotiating a post-2014 agreement with the US.

“They need to make their concerns known to President Karzai,” he says.            

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