January 9, 2013

Near-Zero Odds For Afghanistan's "Zero Option"

Keeping the enemy in the dark is a relatively straightforward task. Hiding information from a populace that has funded 12 years of seemingly endless warfare becomes murkier business, although governments have conducted their activities in such fashion for thousands of years.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has arrived in Washington for three days of consultations with the Obama administration, and a hazy beginning portends a hazy end. Since the main reason for his arrival cannot be obscured - Karzai and President Barack Obama are both under pressure to make a decision on America's post-2014 operations - the inner workings of their summit have been fogged to create political breathing room. There's certainly something positive to be said about negotiating bilaterally, and privacy may be the only means of reaching a compromise between governments.

However the U.S. and Afghan governments have told so many lies, and manipulated so much information for so long, that neither enjoys credibility with either populace.

Rather than face Americans and Afghans honestly, both of their governments continue to dance behind private doors as they seek the best outcome for themselves. Karzai, for his part, wants and needs a continual U.S. military presence to stay on his terms. The White House likewise hopes to supplement America's political presence with military capabilities, while simultaneously tamping down its military profile as low as possible. At least 30,000 U.S. and NATO troops are expected to remain in the country after 2013's withdrawals, meaning at least two more years of hard combat. The longer Afghanistan's bloodshed continues with minimal results from the central government, the more Americans will oppose a long-term military presence in the country.

Problematically, a post-2014 Afghanistan needs U.S./NATO forces to continue training, overseeing, patrolling, raiding and generally providing a "visual presence" in the country. They, in turn, need the funds and attention that come with U.S. military operations; Iraq has already fallen down the list of priorities after U.S. combat troops withdrew in December 2011, a loss of focus that contributes to the present stalemate between Nouri al-Maliki and an oppositional alliance of Sunni, Shia and Kurd. The Obama administration also believes it needs a military presence to leverage during negotiations with the Taliban, whose leadership expects a share of Afghanistan's power regardless of Washington's plans. Hostilities will be difficult enough to stop with an agreement, let alone without one.

Despite the optimistic rhetoric employed by the Obama administration and Pentagon in particular, many Afghans expect their country to enter a new period of instability and uncertainty following the exit of U.S. troops.

“Let’s be honest,” Mohammed Omar Barakzai, a senior shura member in Helmand province, told The New York Times. “The Afghan government is like a generator. The foreigners have provided enough fuel so that it will run until 2014. If they don’t refill the fuel tank, it will stop working.”

Now, instead of simply owning up to this inevitability, the Obama administration has dropped a "zero option" into the media to temporarily relieve pressure around Karzai's visit and mislead the American public. Knocked down from the 20,000 troops that the Pentagon hoped to leave behind, the White House was reportedly considering force-level options of 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 before Tuesday's leak polluted the waters. All of these figures represent more realistic assessments of Afghanistan's ground conditions than the Obama administration's present rumor.

"That would be an option that we would consider," deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes answered when questioned during a conference call on Tuesday. "The president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan."

Stripping away the "zero option's" political skin leaves a naked scam, one intended to placate U.S. opposition to an open-ended commitment and deflect the Taliban's recent claim that it will hold the U.S. responsible for the war's continuation. This conundrum runs to the heart of Afghanistan's war: the U.S. wants to maintain a politico-military presence past 2020, but cannot realistically expect to mediate a political agreement between the Taliban, Kabul and Islamabad if U.S. forces remain in the country indefinitely. The Taliban mean what they say when opposing a post-2014 presence - one U.S. soldier or a thousand will justify their position. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is certain to leave troops behind if a deal can be struck before Karzai's term expires. Thus the U.S. headlines accurately capture this scenario: White House "floats zero option."

Float, as in bait for guppies.

Afghanistan's "zero option" rests at the opposite end of the truth spectrum and shouldn't be swallowed whole as the White House intends. The administration seeks to avoid the overwhelming situation that it currently faces in Iraq, and surely anticipates the political fallout of a chaotic Afghanistan. The only reason that U.S. troops and air vehicles won't remain in the country after 2014 has already played out in Iraq: Karzai, as Nouri al-Maliki did before him, opposes the renewed immunity for U.S. soldiers. This factor is especially critical since the Washington expects to continue Special Forces raids on Afghan villages.

The Obama administration's "zero option" exists by default, not choice or design, and will be forced upon rather than decided by Washington.


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