By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program with the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.
Then presidential candidate Barack Obama once called Afghanistan the war “we have to win.” Now it is the fight America wants only to end.
And as Afghans take the security helm in their country and international forces move to a supporting role, one of the central unanswered questions remains: just how many Americans will stay come 2014 and the long-announced end to the war? The answer to that question says much about the state of U.S.-Afghan relations, the durability of whatever Bilateral Security Agreement the United States and Afghan officials can forge, and America’s sense of its own strategic interests in the region, which have become inextricably interwoven with the fate of President Hamid Karzai (though the two are not the same).
Right now, though, the question is one of simple numbers.
Recent reports revived the idea of the “zero option,” a scenario in which all American troops will leave Afghanistan come next year’s end. That idea, raised in a White House conference call early this year, emerged once more Tuesday amid a sustained outbreak of political irritation from the Obama administration with their Kabul counterpart. Noted the New York Times: “the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.”
Tensions have mounted over the opening – and now closing – of the Taliban office in Qatar, complete with Taliban flag and a sign proclaiming it the “political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” In the wake of his anger over the trappings of the Taliban outreach, Karzai wed the U.S.-Afghan bilateral deal’s fate to that of the Taliban talks. The Afghan president, due to hand over power following next year’s elections, has also pushed for publicly announced, multi-year funding for Afghan security forces.
All of that, for the moment, is stalled amid a rising swell of mutual mistrust built on years of missed opportunities and much progress that failed to materialize. Norway, not usually one for public expressions of diplomatic pique, has even threatened to withhold aid dollars unless it sees Kabul run credible elections and bolster women’s rights.
Afghanistan today has evolved into the international community’s boulevard of downsized goals. Now, even “Afghan good enough” may be too much to expect. Against this backdrop the debate about whether and how many American forces should stay continues, even as the answers are, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, decidedly “not imminent.”
Earlier this year, the numbers ranged from zero – then seen as unlikely – to somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000. Gen. James Mattis of Central Command is on record backing 13,600 to remain in the country.
Whatever the figure, the push is on for the White House to announce the number and inject some certainty into the conversation. All of America’s promises are harder to believe in the figure’s absence, noted Retired Gen. John Allen, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“I’d like to see it soon,” Allen told an audience at the Brookings Institution in May on the announcement. “What the president has said to the Afghans is we will not abandon you…What is missing right now...are the specifics associated with that.”
Also largely missing is a public discussion of the American strategy these troops will be fulfilling. The discussion has centered on "responsibly" winding down the Afghanistan war, not what comes afterward.
"We need a discussion that is more articulated about missions, both military missions and others, and one can take different positions on whether you should advise in the field or not, or whether you're going to provide air support and some other key things, at least for a limited period while the Afghans finish development of those,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann late last year. “That argument ought logically to precede the discussion of numbers, which now floats on board with reality.”