Reuters is reporting “U.S. President Barack Obama has told the Pentagon to prepare for the possibility that the United States will not leave behind any troops in Afghanistan after its troop drawdown at the end of this year, the White House said on Tuesday. . . . [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel said planning for what is known as ‘the zero option’ is a prudent step given that [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has made clear he is unlikely to sign the security deal. ‘As the United States military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO,’ Hagel said in a statement.”

Hamid Karzai, left, and President Obama (Jason Reed/Reuters) Hamid Karzai, left, and President Obama in a visit in 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Actually, threatening to bug out entirely and bashing Karzai in public aren’t prudent in the least. For starters, as one expert on Afghanistan reminded me, elections are coming up. With Karzai leaving, this sort of public spat serves no one’s interests, aside from White House aides who want this so-called “zero option.”

I asked Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, a critic of the administration’s handling of Afghanistan, if we were on the verge of losing Afghanistan as we did in Iraq when Obama pulled all troops out only to see Iran increase its influence and sectarian violence resume. He answered, “If we don’t keep a useful number of troops there and convince the Afghans that we won’t bug out at the first excuse, things are unlikely to go well. And I’m less concerned with ‘losing’ Afghanistan than having to fight for it again.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is likewise gloomy: “We will likely have civil war in Afghanistan within a year or so. It’s reasonable to guess that Ayman az-Zawahiri could even reappear in Jallalabad, which is where bin Ladin landed in ’96. This could become excruciatingly surreal and dangerous. Possibly even a greater defeat for the United States than Obama’s flight from Iraq and the red-line fiasco in Syria.” The danger here is that Afghanistan’s central government crumbles, the most dogged Taliban fighters gain the upper hand and back will come the jihadis (although many have found a home in Syria thanks to that Obama foreign policy debacle). Add to that the potential for growing support for the Taliban from the increasingly radicalized Pakistan army and you have a situation that looks remarkably like pre-Sept. 11 Afghanistan.

Outgoing House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (Calif.), in a speech on Monday, warned that the administration is playing with fire. He praised the enormous progress made by the Afghan army as well as in the lives of ordinary Afghan citizens, but warned that the situation is, to put it mildly, fragile and depends on execution of a bilateral security agreement:

I told you that the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] had made some incredible gains. That’s true. But I also said this is a force that’s five years old. Put plainly, without our support – and that support includes presence and money – the Afghan Security Forces can’t execute. Their remaining gaps aren’t unreasonable for a five-year-old force – they need help with logistics, with administration, pay, and leave, with air support, with intelligence. But filling these gaps doesn’t mean that America’s sons and daughters will be stuck on the front lines forever.

He cautioned, “You don’t need to look past Baghdad to see how quickly gains can unravel. We went into Afghanistan to do a job. Americans don’t like starting things we don’t intend to finish, no matter how hard it may be.” And most important he chided the president for failing to talk hardly at all about our mission, successes and ongoing obligations there. (“[W]e owe it to ourselves to have a frank discussion about America’s moral responsibility in Afghanistan. The Taliban are brutal. They are a cruel, barbaric horde and their kind has no place in the 21st century. We abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban once before. And both the United States and the people of Afghanistan paid the price. America leads the world. Leadership has responsibilities. There are times when democracies must take a hard look inward. There are times when we must come to terms with the burden of our values. Afghanistan is one of those moments.”)

So here we are again at a crossroads. The Afghanistan situation is arguably much more precarious than was Iraq when Obama arrived. (Bush, unlike Obama, did not put arbitrary limits on his surge and handed his successor a battlefield victory.) But the administration has little will or skill to finish the job. McKeon stressed to the president that what we have accomplished so far “should be a source of pride, a piece of President Obama’s legacy; not some shameful burden never to be spoken of. Mr. President, you may have stumbled there, but a safe and secure Afghanistan is within our grasp. Don’t let it slip away.” Unfortunately, that is precisely where we are heading.