THERE ARE two ways to interpret this week’s news that the Obama administration is seriously weighing a total military withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. The so-called “zero option” is either a bluff to scare Afghan President Hamid Karzai into being more cooperative, or a trial balloon to see how the American public reacts. It’s unlikely that Obama is bluffing. But the zero option is one the United States should avoid.
Current plans in Afghanistan call for most of the 66,000 US troops there to depart in 2014, leaving behind fewer than 10,000 to train the Afghan army and conduct counterterrorism operations. But negotiations with Karzai over the terms under which those troops will operate have been excruciating. US officials now say they are considering pulling all troops out by the middle of next year.
In fact, that’s what happened in Iraq. The Obama administration made a half-hearted attempt to keep about 10,000 soldiers in that country. But when it ran into difficulties in brokering an agreement, US forces pulled out completely.
In Afghanistan, though, US officials should try to stay long enough to see that country through the aftermath of its presidential elections, scheduled for 2014. Karzai, whom the United States helped put into office, is slated to step down. During this critical moment, Afghanistan needs international support.
Afghanistan is much more fragile than Iraq was. Too hasty a departure could push Afghanistan back into civil war. Afghan forces are far more dependent on international help than the Iraqis were. The Afghan army relies heavily on US and NATO air support. Withdrawing that support too soon would remove the backbone of the international force in Afghanistan. A complete US exit would likely trigger the departure of nearly all NATO allies as well. Moreover, talk of a total US withdrawal removes any incentive the Taliban has to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government.
Karzai is difficult to work with. He has demanded a new status-of-forces agreement governing US troops in Afghanistan, even though an existing agreement is not set to expire. He is also asking for the impossible: the right to try American soldiers who have been accused of crimes in Afghan courts. He likely knows that no US secretary of defense would ever agree to that. But he is taking that stubborn bargaining position anyway, perhaps to increase his leverage in other areas or to get a bigger American commitment to financially support the Afghan army, years into the future.
Karzai is overplaying his hand. The Obama administration is understandably frustrated. But Karzai is set to leave office in less than a year. The United States should negotiate firmly, patiently, and creatively until Karzai makes an acceptable deal. It would be a shame if all of Afghanistan were punished because of his miscalculation.