The Buzz

Afghanistan: Why the Zero Option Is No Option

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the US has official Washington all but calling for his head. Senator Dianne Feinstein says he is “a cipher.” Tom Donilon, President Obama’s former national security adviser, says he is “reckless.” They’re right: Karzai is all of these things, and then some.

After Afghanistan’s traditional decision-making body, the Loya Jirga, gave the BSA their blessing, Karzai refused to sign it unless Washington moves to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and guarantees that the U.S. military will no longer raid Afghan homes. On the former matter, Karzai is living in an alternative reality: the United States has been trying to get a recalcitrant Karzai to consent to peace talks for years. On the latter issue, he conveniently ignores that his own security forces and the Taliban represent the greatest threats to Afghan civilians. And, as recent events have shown, he is not too keen to criticize either party, preferring to instead turn his ire on the foreigners who have kept the lights on for his opium republic with their own blood and treasure since 2002.

Karzai has surrounded himself with mendacious, corrupt criminals and warlords, and indulges his government’s worst traits. It therefore fails to surprise this observer that the “zero option”—that is, the removal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan after 2014 and provision of little if any financial aid to Karzai’s government—is being seriously considered in Washington—and not just as a negotiating technique, in the wake of Susan Rice’s failed browbeating in Kabul.

Yet, as frustrating as it is to watch Karzai aim a pistol at his own country’s head, the United States must not let its ire for Afghanistan’s jester-in-chief jeopardize its main interests in the region: promoting stability and countering transnational terrorist networks. Unfortunately, neither of these objectives will be well-served by a hasty total withdrawal from the Hindu Kush.

The United States cannot expect to effectively counter and combat transnational militant groups without a special operations and intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan—which the zero option would uproot—that provides physical and signals intelligence reach into Pakistan and other parts of the region.

As the last Department of Defense-issued report on security and stability in Afghanistan said, "Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post-2014 US and NATO presence is determined." In the absence of U.S. financial support and a U.S. military presence of some sort, the gains of the last few years will collapse. If the United States were to keep financial and military aid flowing to the Afghan security forces without some troops on the ground, our oversight mechanisms would thereby perhaps evaporate entirely, leading to even worse corruption. If financial support were cut, the Afghan National Security Forces, now numbering nearly 350,000 members, might fracture into a plethora of disgruntled, unpaid militias. True, as I have argued elsewhere, some fragmentation of the security forces may be inevitable, but with continuing U.S. support, fragmentation would likely be limited to the south and the east, and the army would be less affected than would be the police. The zero option could thus lead to chaos across all of Afghanistan.

Such instability would inevitably bleed over into Pakistan—a nuclear-armed power and a hotbed of anti-Americanism and extremism—and strengthen groups like the Pakistani Taliban in their quest to usurp the state. It would reinforce Islamabad’s reliance on armed non-state proxies, used by Pakistan to try to impose or negotiate a semblance of stability on their northwestern flank, as it attempted to do in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when it favored the installation of its then-favorite son, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

So what good would the zero option bring? A sense of relief? If so, the reprieve would be ephemeral, for it would take little time for Afghanistan to become a regional—and likely a global—problem once again.

Mr. President: grit your teeth and work with Karzai to ink a deal before Christmas. Close political involvement in Afghanistan, respectful of Afghan sovereignty concerns, can assist in facilitating smooth presidential elections next year—the best way to get rid of America’s Karzai problem.