As it ponders what kind of force to leave in Afghanistan after 2014, the White House has started talking about a “zero option”FOR all the smiles and handshakes, this week’s visit to Washington, DC, by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, was a tense affair. Mr Karzai was due to meet President Barack Obama on January 11th to discuss the scope and size of America’s military presence in his country after the end of 2014, when almost all of NATO’s combat troops are due to leave.
Mr Karzai may have overplayed his hand. He knows that a bilateral security agreement with America will be vital. Yet the shrillness of some of Mr Karzai’s criticisms of America’s conduct of the war has only played into the hands of those in the administration who would like to be shot of Afghanistan. Nothing is likely to be decided for several months—the agreement does not have to be signed until November—but there is now talk of a so-called zero option, which would see the departure of all American forces next year.
it had been assumed that America would want to keep at least 20,000 of its troops in Afghanistan, bolstered by a few thousand more from NATO allies. They would be there to continue the training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and to provide essential capabilities that the Afghans still lack and have come to depend upon when fighting the Taliban alongside Western forces. These include air transport for logistics and medical evacuation, surveillance and intelligence, and close air support. In addition, America would retain special forces and armed drones to stop al-Qaeda’s leadership regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal areas or returning to the terrorist group’s old training grounds in Afghanistan itself.
For the Afghans, it seemed self-evident that America would want to keep bases in their country as a way of maintaining its influence in a region full of security threats, whether from Iran or from a failing Pakistani state armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. They also believed assurances from the Americans and the wider world that they would not be abandoned, and that, after spending so much blood and treasure, the West would not allow Afghanistan to descend into chaos and civil war yet again.
Mr Karzai and other Afghan political leaders are sensitive about their country’s sovereignty. But they have no intention of emulating the Iraqis, who brought an abrupt end to the presence of American troops by refusing to sign a new status of forces agreement providing immunity from prosecution for foreign soldiers.
Yet they appear to have underestimated how fast the appetite in Mr Obama’s administration has waned for keeping a significant military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Acute budgetary pressures; the draining of public support for involvement in a war most believe long ago to have been lost; and a belief in some quarters that drones and the intelligence networks that have been built up over the past decade are all that is needed for American security: all have chipped away at the notion of leaving behind a substantial force. On January 8th Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, confirmed that leaving no troops behind after 2014 was one of the options under active consideration.
How much of this should come as a surprise? In the vice-presidential election debate last October, when asked about the drawdown timetable for Afghanistan, Joe Biden said: “We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.” Since Mr Biden has frequently argued for America having the lightest possible footprint in Afghanistan, his remark got little attention. But in November, when the American commander of the NATO-led international coalition, General John Allen, told his bosses at the Pentagon that he favoured a slow drawdown of combat troops over the next two years and a residual force of at least 15,000 to be provided by America alone, he was told to come back with lower estimates.
Unfortunately for General Allen, at about the same time he found himself embroiled in the fallout from the sudden resignation of David Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. It may have weakened his bargaining position. This month General Allen offered revised proposals for a force ranging from about 3,000 to 9,000. Most military experts, however, still believe that an international force of around 30,000 is needed to support the ANSF after 2014.
Yet it now appears that the troop levels under consideration by the president range between 6,000 and none. His choice of defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator whom the president nominated this week, is unlikely to challenge those numbers. Mr Hagel has long been a sceptic when it comes to Afghanistan and has talked of “looking for the exit”. Even if the higher force figure gets the go-ahead, allies will be reluctant to contribute to it, concluding that America is more than halfway out of the door and that such a minimal force can achieve little beyond a small training mission in Kabul and securing the air base at nearby Bagram for limited counter-terrorism operations.
Despite an improving combat performance, it is highly uncertain whether the ANSF will cope. Hastily recruited and trained, the ANSF is still a work in progress. It was deliberately denied heavy weapons or much of an air force on the assumption that America would provide key “enablers” for years to come. It now takes the lead security role in about 85% of the country by population, and overall levels of violence are slightly down on previous years. But according to the Pentagon’s latest report on the progress of Afghan forces, only one out of 23 brigades is capable of operating without any outside help. It now looks as if the ANSF will be on its own in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, as well as in the wild east of the country which borders the lair in North Waziristan of the Haqqani network.
As well as a security transition, a crucial political transition is also under way, with a presidential election due in 2014 (Mr Karzai is constitutionally barred from standing again). Whether Mr Obama decides on a force of 6,000 or on no troops at all, Afghans going to the polls 16 months from now will be facing much bleaker prospects than many might have expected only a few months ago. The Economist
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