The U.S. threat to exercise the dreaded “zero option” in Afghanistan should Hamid Karzai refuse to sign the bilateral security agreement found new steam on Tuesday when news emerged that the Pentagon has proposed to the White House that the two contingencies it is prepared to accept in Afghanistan are one where 10,000 American troops remain or none at all. “The proposal is 10,000 or basically nothing, a pullout,”according to one anonymous official.
The New York Times reported that the figure, which is the subject of much debate in the White House and the U.S. strategic community, is the midpoint of the range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops. According to anonymous officials the Times spoke to, the Pentagon sees any number of troops fewer than 10,000 as inadequate and suspects that it would be unable to “protect the reduced retinue of diplomats, military and intelligence officials that remain in Afghanistan.”
News of the Pentagon estimate comes a few weeks after a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report predicted a bleak future for Afghanistan after U.S. and coalition troops depart. That report “predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.”
Certain White House officials questioned the Pentagon’s insistence on a 10,000 or zero strategy. Vice President Joe Biden and “some officials in the White House National Security Council” were among those to dispute the Pentagon’s proposal.
The United States currently bears the costs for the majority of the international troop presence in Afghanistan, maintaining about 37,500 total. The Obama administration is keen to maintain a small contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan following a general drawdown this year. The bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government is the cornerstone of this strategy and would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan to train the Afghan National Army and Security Forces and conduct limited counterterrorism operations. The strategic imperative for the Obama administration has been made more urgent by the political ambiguity in Afghanistan as it heads for elections in April. Furthermore, Islamic extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network are eager to undermine the control of the central government in Kabul–a complete drawdown of foreign forces makes this objective more likely to succeed.
The Pentagon’s proposal and the entire debate on post-2014 troop numbers in Afghanistan could be rendered inutile should Hamid Karzai or his successor refuse to sign the bilateral security agreement. Without the agreement, there would be no legal basis for the United States to maintain troops in Afghanistan past its general withdrawal this year. Caitlin M. Hayden, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council says that should the bilateral security agreement not get signed, the U.S. “will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan. That is not a future we are seeking, and we do not believe that it is in Afghanistan’s interests.”