Obama's Afghanistan Soap Opera

The Karzai spat as administration theater.

It sounds like a soap opera… and it might be nothing but theatrics after all.

The very public back and forth over whether Afghanistan will adopt a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) allowing U.S. and NATO troops to remain in the country after 2014 has been dramatic, to say the least. After months of wrangling between Kabul and Washington, the pact was dumped on the Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of Afghan leaders, to review. The council endorsed the agreement. Soon thereafter, however, Afghan president Hamid Karzai declared that it wasn’t good enough.

Karzai wanted changes to the agreement. And in any case, he added, he wouldn’t sign any pact until after the 2014 national elections.

U.S. national-security adviser Susan Rice shot back in a statement: “Without a prompt signature,” she declared, “the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.”

All this sounds like tense, high-stakes diplomacy. It might be. But, it also might be play- acting—trumped-up drama that merely sets the stage for what some in the Obama White House have wanted all along: a “zero option,” where the U.S. entirely abandons its military presence in Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. would bank on the CIA and special forces keeping the terrorists in South Asia at bay by: 1) launching occasional drone strikes, 2) bribing the Pakistanis with foreign aid, and 3) keeping their fingers crossed.

Under this scenario, it’s a win for Karzai, too. He gets to pretend that he is throwing the U.S. out because the Americans won’t respect his nation’s sovereignty. This makes him look like a patriotic hero, but in reality it is just a face-saving measure; the reality is that the White House just wants an excuse to head for the door.

There is more conjecture than evidence for this interpretation of Karzai’s Alamo-esque attitude, but it is conjecture based on an increasingly suspicious pattern of behavior that suggests that this White House has a penchant for a staged foreign policy.

First, the impending exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is looking more and more like how American combat troops exited Iraq. According to the administration’s version of events, the U.S. tried mightily to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, but Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki simply refused to deliver. Washington thus had no choice but to withdraw its troops.

A case can be made that the administration’s efforts to secure an agreement were always half-hearted, because it was more interested in finding an excuse to walk away. As retired general Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, noted in recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee:

It is U.S. and Afghanistan written policy that both countries will maintain a long term strategic relationship which is mutually beneficial. I am reminded we had a similar agreement with Iraq, titled the Strategic Framework Agreement, which we have not honored; indeed, we have pulled away from Iraq, allowing Iran to gain influence and encouraging the Al Qaeda to reassert itself.

This looks a lot like Iraq redux.

Now, there are stories that the White House stage-managed the negotiations over the Iran nuclear agreement. We were led to believe the negotiations sprang from a presidential phone call to the Iranian president after they had failed to hook up for a meet-and-greet at the UN. But new reports suggest the administration lined up everything behind the scenes during secret talks over the last year.

Is a similar disinformation campaign going on over Afghanistan?

Even the Washington Post editorial board suspects something is afoot. In a recent piece, it opined:

[T]he Afghan’s irascibility is playing into the hands of White House political operatives who would like to withdraw all U.S. forces while assigning blame to the host government, as happened with Iraq in 2011. If that’s what happens, the consequences would be similar: an escalating civil war that destroys U.S. allies and empowers extremists.

What’s the real story behind the Afghan BSA soap opera? It’s still unclear. But if the end result is the zero option, then when the curtain closes on the Obama administration, Afghanistan may well look more like it did on September 10, 2001 than what it looked like when Mr. Obama first entered the Oval Office.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy issues at The Heritage Foundation.