Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has observed Afghan elections and made several trips there sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force.
The Obama administration is reportedly considering an accelerated pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, followed by a “zero option” — the complete elimination of an American and, presumably, international military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. This is an understandable but unwise idea. Even raising it as a bargaining device is a mistake in our ongoing mission in Afghanistan — a place that President Obama clearly considers crucial to U.S. security, given that more than 60,000 U.S. troops are still there.
In fairness, the zero-option idea has appeal not only because the war has been long and frustrating but also because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been so difficult to work with. Beyond all the past brouhahas over corruption, tainted elections and other matters, there is the burst of invective Karzai recently leveled against the United States over what he described as a duplicitous approach to negotiating with the Taliban. Karzai has criticized Washington and broken off negotiations about the long-term U.S. presence because, when the Taliban opened an office for exploratory peace talks in Doha, Qatar, last month, it again called itself the Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and otherwise sought to portray the new facility as a quasi-embassy for a government in waiting. Karzai decided that Washington was complicit because the Obama administration failed to prevent that outcome.
Karzai worries that U.S. officials will secretly cut a deal with the Taliban at his expense to hasten the U.S. troop departure from Afghanistan. Karzai has also accused the United States of instigating radical extremism on his territory, and he suspects that our real desire in having bases in Afghanistan after next year is quasi-imperialist, with an eye toward broader regional purposes beyond the immediate needs of Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
These actions and this attitude toward Washington are indeed regrettable. But they are no reason for the United States to threaten to pull the plug on all it has invested in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s recent outbursts, although excessive, are partly understandable. He had warned the Obama administration in private and public that the Taliban would seek to use its new political office in Doha as a virtual embassy. Washington not only failed to prevent that development but also seemed caught off-guard when it happened.
The bigger point, however, is this: Karzai is not Afghanistan, nor does he represent all Afghans. He won two presidential elections — and the United States should do a better job of acknowledging that he earned a mandate from his own people, despite election irregularities. But Karzai’s frustrations with the war and the international community, and his frequent lashing-out, should not be conflated with any desire by most Afghans for U.S. troops to leave. Virtually all other Afghan political leaders I know very much want the international community to stay and remember all too well what happened a quarter-century ago, when the United States abruptly terminated its role in their country.
Leaving too soon, and withdrawing all U.S. and international forces, would greatly increase the risk of mission failure for the international community.
An accelerated departure and a zero option are inconsistent with the fact that Afghan security forces, although much improved, still need support and guidance and will continue to need them even after the NATO mission ends next year. This aid includes air support, technical aspects of intelligence, bomb-clearing technology and embedded mentors for commanders in the field.
Afghan security forces are holding their own on the battlefield and are in the lead nationwide. U.S. force numbers are down by one-third from their peak in 2011, and our rate of casualties has declined by an even higher percentage since then. Afghan army and police casualties are way up, indicating a commitment to the fight that we should admire and want to support. Yet the Afghan forces aren’t strong enough to win or even guarantee continued containment of the Taliban on their own.
Beyond the military effects, if the international community totally withdrew, Afghan reformers and all those interested in building a new Afghanistan would suffer a huge psychological blow. Echoes of 1989 would be unmistakable. The ensuing crisis of confidence could be fatal. Indeed, it could affect next year’s presidential elections, as many politicians and citizens could respond by seeking protection within their own ethnic communities, when what is needed is national unity.
U.S. officials may perceive the zero option as a smart negotiating tactic, but it actually reinforces the hedging behavior, especially in Pakistan, that allows the Taliban to maintain sanctuaries there. Pakistan’s intelligence services and military see the Taliban as their backup plan, should Afghanistan revert to civil war, or chaos, after a premature NATO pullout. Some in Pakistan challenge this approach, but most Pakistanis will see little reason to question their long-standing strategy as long as we keep talking about a zero option.
The United States would be much better served by declaring its desire to help Afghanistan, provided that Afghans do their part and have a serious election next year and that Karzai then step down as required by his country’s constitution (and as he has pledged to do). We need to help the Afghans with that process and avoid being bogged down in public squabbles that serve no constructive purpose.