US 'fully committed' in Afghanistan, Panetta says. But no troops after 2014?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Obama Friday in the wake of a 'zero option' being floated for US troops. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Mr. Karzai met at the Pentagon Thursday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Afghan President Hamid Karzai sits with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for their meeting at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday.

At various stages of America’s wars in the past decade, there are inevitable discussions surrounding what US troop levels are best for the next stage of conflict.

These deliberations tend to involve three choices provided by senior US military officials: a high number, a low number, and one right in the middle that the US military brass believes is optimal – or at least their best bet given the political climate at the time.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet with President Obama Friday in the wake of a new twist: The Obama administration leaked the news that it is considering a “zero option” as well.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized Thursday after an hour-long one-on-one meeting with Mr. Karzai at the Pentagon that the United States is “fully committed to finishing the job” in Afghanistan.

Senior defense officials sidestepped the question, however, of whether zero troops is a realistic option in post-2014 Afghanistan. 

“We’ve said from the start that no option is entirely off the table,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Pentagon briefing Thursday.

Senior US officials insist, too, they are serious about the possibility of pulling nearly all US troops out of Afghanistan after US combat operations end, which is slated to happen at the end of 2014.

“There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve US troops, some of which might not,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communication, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.

Gen. John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has submitted military options that include three plans for troop levels at 6,000, 10,000, and 20,000.

By putting a “zero option” on the table in advance of Karzai’s visit, however, the Obama administration is injecting a lower figure in the military’s “Goldilocks” approach. This, in turn, changes the terms of the debate, since any figure higher than zero seems like a compromise. 

“I suspect there’s probably some gamesmanship involved,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Equally important, leaking the zero-option scenario is meant to send a message to Karzai, Mr. Dressler adds.

“What the White House is trying to demonstrate is, ‘We could possibly completely withdraw, so when you come to D.C., just be aware that this is a two-sided conversation. This isn’t going to be you coming to D.C. to tell us what we’re going to do,’ ” Dressler says.

In the past, Karzai has been vocal in his demands that US troops not conduct night raids, for example. A key point in discussions will also involve whether US troops and contractors should have immunity from prosecution if any Afghan official may want to charge them with war crimes.

This latter point was the stumbling block when US forces were pulling out of Iraq. The administration ultimately decided against leaving US troops behind when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would not compromise on immunity.

Karzai, on the other hand, has a greater interest in keeping US troops in his country than the Iraqis had, Dressler argues. “He also understands that the Obama administration doesn’t have much desire to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014,” he says.

The cost of the war, in the midst of fiscal challenges, is one big reason for the reluctance to keep troops in Afghanistan. The war is politically unpopular as well. 

“The other thing that’s not getting enough attention is the cost that the troop numbers imply – and what’s the political supportability of those long-term costs on Capitol Hill,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

There are human costs as well. Some 1,000 US service members could die between now and when US combat forces are expected to leave the country at the end of 2014, according to the estimates of defense analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

How, Secretary Panetta was asked Thursday, is it possible to go to the American people and ask for another 18 months of lives lost and vast sums of money spent, when the defense budget is being cut?

“We have poured a lot of blood and treasure in this war over the last 10 years,” Panetta said. “But the fact is that we have also made a lot of progress as a result of the sacrifices that have been made,” he insisted, adding that the US cannot “walk back” now.

“I think the point to President Karzai is that he has to be thoughtful in what he comes to Washington with,” says Mr. Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The economic context has changed, the political context is much different, and the military situation is in Year 11 in a war that in 2014 is going to be in Year 13,” he says. “How are you going to sustain it?”

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