It’s the most open secret in Washington that America’s Afghanistan policy is in deep disarray. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quick to try to derail the most recent attempt between the US and the Taliban to negotiate an end to the Afghan war; Karzai fumed that the effort was “in reality an attempt to cut him out and make an American deal with the Taliban.” In response, presumably, President Obama announced today that he was considering a “zero option” for Afghanistan—leaving no troops behind to help the Karzai regime and its allies fend off a resurgent Taliban and stay in power after 2014.
That’s a dumb idea, says Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst. Why? Because doing so will convince the Taliban, just like in 2009 when Obama simultaneously announced a troop surge and withdrawal date, to wait us out. The more patient elements in the Taliban see that if they can only hang on until 2014, when most or all US troops will have departed, the only thing standing between them and the fragile government in Kabul would be the notoriously corrupt, questionably loyal, and usually incompetent Afghan army and police.
Is President Obama announcing that he is pondering abandoning Afghanistan to bring Karzai to heel? That in itself is a bad idea; American presidents shouldn’t be letting personal relationships get in the way of important strategic decisions. In any case, Karzai will be gone in 2014: he can’t run for president again after this term is up.
President Obama seems to be once again falling between two stools. Bringing the Taliban to the bargaining table will be impossible if its leaders know they can wait the Americans out. Getting Karzai to take responsibility for his country’s future will be impossible if he thinks America will protect him forever. President Obama wants the Taliban to negotiate as if he might otherwise stay forever, and he wants Karzai to reform as if the Americans were leaving tomorrow.
It won’t work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s hard to see where the President takes it from here.
Working towards a political approach that brings an end to America’s Afghan commitment on reasonable terms is the right goal. Telegraphing our eagerness to leave has probably put that goal, never an easy one, out of reach. Hard choices lie ahead, and it seems clear that if the President is forced to choose between getting out in a bad way or staying put for the long haul, he will leave. If so, it will be difficult to explain what was gained by the surge or by five years of war under this President.
[Hamid Karzai image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]