It wasn’t too long ago that the Pentagon told the White House that, in planning for a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan post-2014, the two options worth considering are at least 10,000 troops or none at all — the “Zero Option.” Now, President Obama has told the Pentagon — for the first time — to begin planning a complete withdrawal by the end of the year. Obama additionally spoke directly with Hamid Karzai, warning him of the prospect that the “Zero Option” may become a reality.
The message isn’t intended just for the Pentagon of course; it’s a pointed message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and whoever his successor may be come April’s elections that the United States’ offer on the table (in the form of the Bilateral Security Agreement) should not be taken for granted. The U.S. has long told the Afghan government that rejecting the BSA would be hugely deleterious for Afghanistan’s security beyond next year. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted separately that the White House’s decision to move forward with planning for a complete withdrawal was a a “prudent step.”
In his final months in office, Hamid Karzai’s recalcitrance has deeply frustrated, and even angered, U.S. officials. He has freed prisoners who pose a threat to U.S. and NATO forces, his office was implicated in submitting false evidence to substantiate U.S. collateral damage, and has generally refused to work with U.S. partners. Karzai has defended himself, arguing that an agreement as significant as the BSA should be decided by someone with a stronger leadership mandate than himself — namely his successor. Additionally, it came to light recently that the reason Karzai, who appeared to agree with the prospect of a small U.S. presence in Afghanistan post-2014, changed his mind so suddenly due to a secret backchannel between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Now that the White House has formally requested that the Pentagon begin planning for a formal withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Karzai’s hands are tied. A White House statement on President Obama’s conversation with President Karzai noted that “the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.” Fortunately, most of the front-runners for the Afghan presidency are likely to sign the BSA should they win election. Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan presidential candidate, said that should he win election, he would immediately sign the BSA.
At the moment, the Obama administration risks overplaying its hand. It is likely that following Afghanistan’s upcoming political transition, any new Afghan president will require time to consolidate power. More seriously, should the elections run into problems or necessitate a run-off, the leadership transition could take months. This could further delay the BSA and ultimately result in the White House acting on the Zero Option despite almost no one within the current administration believing that it’s the right strategy for Afghanistan.