Get the Deal or Get Out of Afghanistan

There is simply no justification for having a single American killed or wounded on the Afghan battlefield if all is certain to come to naught in a year’s time or less.

The war that Barack Obama once called a war of necessity no longer seems necessary to his administration.

The president and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, made it clear at their joint press conference last week that the United States will hand over control of all Afghan territory to that country’s security forces in a few months, several months sooner than anticipated. “Afghanization” is therefore proceeding apace. Of course the administration prefers not to use the term because its analogue, “Vietnamization,” did not exactly prove to be successful. Whatever it is termed, however, the trajectory of the administration’s policy indicates that the current variant in Afghanistan is unlikely to meet with any more success than did its southeast Asian analogue four decades ago.

Numerous analysts have already pointed out that the police component of the Afghan security forces is rife with the corruption that plagues the entire country. Nor is it clear that the Afghan military is sufficiently ready to operate on its own. The warlords that dominate various Afghan regions remain in place, as do the Taliban and the Haqqani Group. Obama yielding to Karzai’s proposal that the Taliban open an office in Qatar, from which it would negotiate with the Afghan government, smacks of the Paris Peace Talks that ultimately did little to prevent North Vietnam from overrunning the South. The portents for Afghanistan’s future are ominous at best.

The Taliban has virtually no incentive to negotiate in good faith. It sees an America that cannot escape from Afghanistan quickly enough and a Karzai government that has alienated its people by failing to provide the services they expect and doing virtually nothing to stem the tide of corruption that has engulfed the country and created an elite that launders its ill-gotten gains abroad.

The Taliban knows from its success in the 1990s that its system of rough but relatively honest justice is preferred by most Afghans over the corrupt system that has gone viral under Karzai. It knows as well that a significant percentage of the Afghan population has yet to benefit from the social and economic reforms that the United States has sought to implant in the country over the past ten years; that a very large number of Afghans resent many of those reforms, particularly the social ones; and that an embarrassingly large number of economic projects will be unsustainable once the United States leaves in 2014.

The two presidents were both insufficiently precise about the key to a long term U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would provide immunity from Afghan prosecution for American troops. President Obama noted the importance of immunity, stating that Americans would not remain in the country without an agreement. But he did not set anything like a specific timetable for achieving that agreement as he did either for the withdrawal of American troops or even for the handoff to the Afghan security forces. President Karzai, for his part, promised to put the case for immunity to the “Afghan people,” rather an unusual formulation for a man who has not hesitated to demand the withdrawal of security contractors from his country, and of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan’s villages, without much consultation with the “Afghan people.”

President Obama is correct that American troops should not remain in Afghanistan without a status of forces agreement. He will need to be far more committed to achieving that agreement than he was when Washington sought to negotiate a SOFA with Iraq. It is said that Baghdad now regrets that it did not agree to a SOFA—the country is once again teetering on the brink of ethnic conflict—and is advising Kabul not to make the same mistake. Karzai’s mercurial nature may render it difficult to achieve a SOFA, however, unless he is pressed by Obama on a sustained basis. And it is not at all clear whether the administration really wants to keep any troops in Afghanistan at all.

Washington is full of rumors about a new White House plan to leave fewer than three thousand troops in a country nearly the size of Texas. Even with the high technology that it could call upon to support its operations, such a small force is unlikely to prevent a determined Taliban, supported by a large part of the population, from toppling the corrupt Afghan governing structure. If Washington is only prepared to leave a few thousand troops in Afghanistan, it might as well leave none at all. And if it is not going to press for a SOFA to be completed at the same time as the handover to Afghan forces, it might as well pull its troops out now.

It is not enough to lavish constant praise on our men and women in uniform. We must be sensible about putting their lives at risk. There is simply no justification for having a single American killed or wounded on the Afghan battlefield if all is certain to come to naught in a year’s time or less. The president should either push hard for a SOFA as soon as possible—and commit to a realistic force level to remain once that SOFA is concluded—or pull all our troops out of Afghanistan. Now.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.