July 10th, 2013
09:54 AM ET

Afghanistan: Boulevard of downsized goals

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.

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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.”

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Topics: Afghanistan • United States

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soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Chukwuemeka

    The United States and other members of the international community need to bring all afghan groups together now before talking about elections. If this is not done the same fate the Egyptians are facing now would be the same the afghans would suffer. There would be an allout civil war with no end in sight. Already the desire of the Americans to recognize the Taliban without the consent of Karzai and his administration is a step in the wrong direction

    July 10, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    Whatever happens, the right-wing thugs in Washington will do all in their power to make sure that Afghanistan remains a U.S. satellite state since it has over $1T in underground resources such as copper, lithium, gold and other minerals. We never had any right to be there in the first place any more than the Russians had. The only difference between the Russians and the NATO forces is their motivation. The Russians were motivated by their ideology and the NATO forces by their sheer greed!

    July 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  3. Matt

    With the Biden CT plan without developing a ANSF to support that CT force. While you would stay in country for a small period the security situation would in the required the removal of that force from in country. This require the CT to operate from outside of Afghanistan to conduct interdiction missions inside the country. This required a mothership JSOC and a carrier for air support for the southern sector and operating air support and JSOC out of a small base in one of the Stans, for the northern sector, whatever is cheaper. If Afghan asked for too much money, things like F-16s, M1 etc. That was an alternative. It may not fit with Afghan objectives, but it would fit with US objectives.

    July 10, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  4. rightospeak

    Why is Afghanistan still draining our men and our treasury ? Leaving there ASAP would be the right decision.

    July 11, 2013 at 7:33 am | Reply
  5. Steve Harvey

    Ten years after we pull out of Afghanistan it will be almost like we never were there. It does not matter if we pull out now or ten years from now. The results will be the same. The country has never been nothing but a nest of trouble and corruption and never will be.

    July 11, 2013 at 8:39 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    If it went Karzai's way, he would want all foreign troops out of Afghanistan. Yet he insisted that the Western forces should leave behind the high-tech weaponry behind and that their governments should pour in billions of dollars every year into his country to keep the Afghan National Army afloat. He wants to be father of the nation, by appealing to nationalist sentiments and criticising the US to win the hearts of the Taliban and insisted that peace talks with the Taliban should be Afghan-led, no US interference.

    July 11, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      Yes, Karzai's motivation is quite clear. It does not mean much by itself: nobody expected him to love US for its soldiers bringing "freedom and democracy to people of Afghanistan". Or did they expect: I would be surprised it naivety went that high up the ranks in US political establishment.
      So the question is: what is US motivation? What does American Military-Industrial Complex want? Do they want to continue milking that situation, or do they believe it only ties them up, makes more harm than good now and it is time to move on: to the next war? Because mama says: do not be a naughty boy! You can not have a new war, you did not finish the one you had before!

      July 11, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
  7. hifly3r

    Most conservatice I know want to pull out. Its the liberal Malala cheerleaders who want to stay.

    Everyone hated Bush, but Obama is much more insidious. Bush didn't do or promise much in Afghanistan. Obama escalated things dramatically. He gets peoples hopes up, but then will pull the rug out from under them, Make no mistake, we should leave tomorrow. But why in hell didn't he realize than 5 years ago?!

    Same in Syria. The were a lot of courageous people who defected and sided agianst dictatorship, based on intimations from the US that we would do something. Now they will lose, be tortured and executed. Obama, like all liberals, play to whatever is popular at the moment. Trust the US and you will pay. That is the lesson the world will learn. We should have said right up front: "Not our fight, good luck to you".

    Cheer Malala all you want. She's a brave young woman. Taliban will eventually kill everyone at her old school, however. That is reality. What was accomplished?

    July 13, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  8. Jay

    We gave it a good go, and we at least took out Bin laden and caused great damage to his network. There is nothing more US and NATO can reasonalby accomplish, given Afghan culture, at this time. Bring all our soldiers home, please. There is nothing there right now worth the loss of a single more, civilized NATO soldier.

    July 14, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply

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