The Dangerous Afghanistan Zero Option

The Obama administration's talk of pulling out all troops is not wise.

In the face of the outcry over a New York Times report that the administration was seriously considering a plan to leave no troops in Afghanistan after 2014, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the so-called “zero option” was not the “preferred” option. But he did not deny that the option was one of several being considered.

Administrations are very careful when issuing denials. It is important to recognize what is not being said as well as what has actually been stated. Carney gave no indication where the “zero” option stands relative to other options. Is “zero” the second-best option? And while it may not be the “preferred” option, would it nevertheless have a better-than-even chance of being implemented? Carney did not say. Moreover, it clearly is not the worst of all options. If it were, Carney would have said so unequivocally.

There is no hiding the fact that Presidents Obama and Karzai do not get along. Nor does anyone doubt that the Obama administration appears willing to do just about anything to avoid having military boots on dangerous ground. These two factors alone would seem to indicate the “preferred” option is one in which the election for Afghan president is held next April; someone less temperamental replaces Karzai; and the Afghan security environment has improved to the point that it is nearly benign.

But how credible is such a preferred option? On July 17 Karzai signed a new law that renders the prospect of a 2014 election highly probable. Yet the Afghan president might still find a way to delay the election, or even if it is held, succeed in replacing himself with someone who has no more trust in Washington than he does. Moreover, who is to say that the Afghan security environment will truly improve to the point that a satisfied administration is prepared to keep any number of troops in that country for an indefinite period?

If the “preferred” option does not play out, as it is not likely to, the administration could then turn to its second best option, namely, the complete withdrawal of American troops.

The administration asserts that in all events, and whatever option it chooses, the United States will remain committed to Afghanistan. But what would be the nature of that commitment in the absence of a troop presence? Could the Agency for International Development, and its many funded organizations, carry out any meaningful projects in such an environment? Would the Congress be prepared to pour development money into a country that, without much effort, could revert back to the chaos of the 1990s—when the United States last abandoned it?

Finally, what about the Taliban? There is little prospect that the Taliban would be willing to negotiate with the government in Kabul should the administration implement, or even announce that it will implement, its “zero option.” The Taliban may have an office in Qatar that was supposed to be the hub of its negotiating effort, but in practice, it is not willing to negotiate much of anything at this time. It certainly will be unlikely to do so in anticipation of America’s military departure, and once the troops are gone will have no incentive whatsoever to pursue talks with the Afghan government. To the contrary, it will probably see itself playing the role of North Vietnam after U.S. troops withdrew from Indochina, and will look to the day when it too can force Americans to be evacuated in helicopters from an embassy rooftop.

President Obama’s initial distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lost much of its credibility in December 2009 when he announced his intention to begin withdrawing American troops in July 2011. He made matters worse almost exactly a year later, when he said the drawdown would conclude in 2014. These announcements enervated allies, who began to withdraw en masse, worried the always-touchy Afghan president, undermined relations with a volatile Pakistan, and energized the Taliban.

Talk of a “zero option” further undermines our credibility with allies, regional powers and adversaries alike. Unless the president openly repudiates this option, or at least relegates it to the worst of all choices, he will probably have guaranteed that Afghanistan will lose whatever social and economic gains it has made in the past thirteen years. Instead, the country will once again will become a battleground for competing private armies—and, worse still, a haven for terrorists seeking to wreak havoc on the West in general and America in particular.

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.