If President Barack Obama has any strategy for a decent exit from Afghanistan, he is certainly keeping it a secret.
The latest White House effort to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, ended in an embarrassing fiasco. Then, last week, the White House once again floated the idea that it would pursue a “zero option” in Afghanistan, meaning Washington would leave no residual force behind after U.S. troops exit in 2014.
If this is the new U.S. exit strategy, it is destined to fail.
Some say floating the “zero option” is only a tactic to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be more cooperative with Washington. Others say the leak reflects Obama’s deep desire to wash his hands of the whole Afghan mess, and therefore could actually become American policy.
I asked Ryan Crocker, one of America’s premier diplomats and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, what he thought, and his anger was palpable as he responded: “If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.
“It invokes memories of the early 1990s,” Crocker added, referring to the time when the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, leaving behind a failed state that became a haven for terrorists.
Crocker has a point. Yet it’s clear that Americans are fed up with the long and costly war in Afghanistan. Obama hasn’t made the case for a continued troop presence and probably believes there would be little political or strategic cost to a zero option. If so, he is wrong.
The importance of a residual military presence (of about 10,000 troops) is more about symbols than numbers. The main function of the troops would be to train and advise Afghans, but they would also symbolize a long-term U.S. commitment to the country’s stability.
Toward that end, the United States signed a bilateral strategic partnership accord with Kabul last year, negotiated by Crocker. A zero option would undercut that accord and signal that Washington is ready to abandon its commitments. It would weaken congressional and international pledges to fund Afghan forces and economic development over the next decade.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter, you might say. Why should we be helping a corrupt Afghan government that feeds on Western aid?
Answer: If that government collapses, the country will plunge into civil war, with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors backing their proxies. Afghanistan would once again become a failed state and potential terrorist haven, as it did in the 1990s.
“We have seen this movie before,” said Crocker.
Only this time, the movie would have dangerous new actors and far grimmer pyrotechnics than it did two decades ago. The blowback from terrorists within Afghanistan would threaten a highly unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan next door.
Administration officials insist that the president is still undecided about the zero option. But as the old saying goes, not to decide is to decide. Afghans are already making their decisions based on the belief that Obama wants a zero option.
In 1971, Henry Kissinger famously scribbled the phrase “We need a decent interval” in the margin of a briefing book that dealt with withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam. The phrase referred to his efforts to ensure there would be sufficient time between a U.S. troop exit and a likely communist takeover in Saigon — so the Nixon administration wouldn’t be blamed for the defeat.
That “decent interval” spanned two years. Unless Obama commits to, and leads, a more coherent diplomatic strategy — with talks that involve all the regional players, not just Washington and the Taliban — there may be no “decent interval” before Afghanistan collapses. It could happen before the end of his second term.