Zeroing in on the zero option for Afghanistan

Obama seems serious enough that proponents of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan are warning against it.

Umit Bektas/Reuters/File
US Army soldiers sit behind a wall as others search for explosives after an IED (improvised explosive device) blast damaged one of their armored vehicles during a road clearance patrol in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan, November 23, 2011. The 'zero option' for Afghanistan would see US forces leave the country completely after 2014.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll yesterday found that a large majority of Americans think the Afghan War – America's longest conflict – has not been worth fighting. The latest evidence of the electorate's extreme war-weariness will certainly not be lost on President Obama, whose administration has already been floating the notion in the DC press of a "zero option" for Afghanistan that would see US forces leave the country completely after 2014.

For years, the plan has been for the US to come to an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on leaving behind 10,000 or more troops after the majority of US troops are withdrawn from the country at the end of next year. The problem has been the agreement part: Mr. Karzai has dragged his feet and made additional financial demands as terms for giving the US what it wants as a condition of remaining – most crucially, a guarantee that US forces in the country would be immune from Afghan prosecution.

When the "leaks" about a zero option started this month the presumption was that it was a shot across Karzai's bow by Mr. Obama, an attempt to remind him that Afghanistan stands to lose far more than the US if all the troops come home. But the prospect that the US will really pack up everything and come home is now being taken as a real possibility. And why not? Obama may not have to face another election, but his fellow Democrats do and the war has become incredibly unpopular, even as Karzai has taken to blustering at a nation that has spent 11 years at war and over $600 billion to keep his government in power.

Asked if "war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting," 67 percent of respondents said "no" and 28 percent "yes." Asked if the war has contributed to America's long-term security, 43 percent said it had a "great deal" or "somewhat" while 50 percent said "no." Those who thought the war hasn't been worth surged from 56 percent the last time the question was asked, in March.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters earlier this week that he wants a bilateral security agreement, the document that would include immunity for US troops, to be signed by October. Gen. Dempsey said the Obama administration isn't planning to withdrawal completely at the end of 2014, but it may come to that.

"No one asked me to prepare a zero option," he said. "I don’t recommend a zero option, but there could be a zero outcome, because we can only stay here if we are invited to do so."

The shifting climate has led even proponents of a longer war to consider that Obama means what he says. Yesterday it was Zalmay Khalilzad's turn at the plate. Mr. Khalilzad served as President George W. Bush's first ambassador to Afghanistan and later as his ambassador to the United Nations, and was very much one of the key diplomatic faces in the early years of the "war on terror." He doubts an agreement will be reached by October.

"My discussions with officials in Washington and Afghanistan have left me thinking that an agreement is unlikely to be signed by October. Mistrust at the leadership level, different threat perceptions, and Obama’s arbitrary but politically potent deadline for ending the war all pose significant obstacles," he writes. "Karzai’s allegations of bad faith against the United States have dampened the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for a bilateral security agreement. Whether Karzai fully appreciates the costs of alienating Washington is unclear. The U.S. proposal on the table would make Afghanistan the largest recipient of U.S. security and economic assistance for the foreseeable future, even ahead of close allies such as Israel."

Khalilzad isn't happy about this – his reference to Obama's politically popular "arbitrary" deadline makes that clear. He argues that Obama should make security guarantees to Karzai about Pakistan and make commitments to strengthen Afghanistan's military and economic institutions. That presumably means more money. He warns that "Obama needs to decide whether short-term expediency is worth the risk of undermining hard-won gains, allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorist groups and forcing a future U.S. president to invade Afghanistan again."

Another lining up against a total withdrawal is former Afghan and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who told Trudy Rubin "If it's a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal... It's as if we're telling the Afghans, 'We're tired, we're going home, screw you.'"

In a way, that is the case. The American public is tired, and the spending on the war has been vast. In return, Karzai has rigged elections, repeatedly lashed out at the US, and his government has leaned on the US to do business with an airline American officers accused of being a major player in the country's heroin trade. Earlier this month Karzai's government demanded the US pay what it termed "back customs fines" on the order of $70 million to move supplies in and out of the country, a practice to extract additional money that's apparently been going on for some time and involves vastly larger sums of money.

To be sure, the argument for staying come what may boils down to "there may be another 9/11." But with Al Qaeda-style Islamist militants resurgent in Iraq and Syria, threats may also emanate from regions far closer to home. The core of Al Qaeda that was based in Afghanistan in 2001 has been hammered, its survivors scattered.

Meanwhile, there hasn't been a successful terrorist attack inside the US that emanated from abroad since 2001, and greater security has been thanks to intensified security procedures at airports and better global intelligence efforts as much, if not more so, than to the US military presence in Afghanistan.

Sometimes wars just have to end, however much people who have invested in them don't want to let go. And it isn't entirely up to the US. In 2011, much of the year was spent speculating about the process terms of an agreement that the US needed from the Iraqi government in exchange for an extended presence beyond 2012. In the end, Obama couldn't get a deal done with the Iraqis that was acceptable to both sides, and we left.

There's a real possibility Afghanistan could unfold in much the same way. It seems a majority of American voters would be just fine with that.

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