Obama ponders the ‘zero option’ for Afghanistan

RIPPLE EFFECT::If the US decides to pull all its troops out of Afghanistan, it is likely to lead to French and German forces leaving, and mean reduced aid to Kabul

NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - Page 7

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, US President Barack Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no US troops there after next year, according to US and European officials.

Obama is committed to ending the US’ military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of next year, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind.

However, his relationship with Karzai has been unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the US to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Karzai repudiated the talks and ended negotiations over a long-term security deal to keep US forces in Afghanistan after next year.

A video conference between Obama and Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both US and Afghan officials with knowledge of the conversation. Karzai, according to those sources, accused the US of trying to negotiate a separate peace with both the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan, leaving Afghanistan’s fragile government exposed to its enemies.

Karzai has made similar accusations in the past. However, those comments were delivered to Afghans — not to Obama.

The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after next year was already gaining momentum before the June 27 videoconference, the officials said. However, since then, the idea of a complete military exit similar to the US military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.

The officials said that no decisions had been made on the pace of the pullout and exactly how many US troops to leave behind in Afghanistan. The goal remains negotiating a long-term security deal, they said, but the hardening of negotiating stances on both sides could result in a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where a deal failed to materialize despite widespread expectations that a compromise would be reached.

“There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option,” a senior Western official in Kabul said.

The ripple effects of a complete US withdrawal would be significant. Western officials said the Germans and Italians — the two main European allies who have committed to staying on with substantial forces — would leave as well. Any smaller nations that envisioned keeping token forces would most likely have no way of doing so.

And Afghanistan would probably see far less than the about US$8 billion in annual aid it is expecting in the coming years — an amount that covers more than half the government’s annual spending.