'Zero Option' the right one in Afghanistan
July 10th, 2013
03:35 PM ET

'Zero Option' the right one in Afghanistan

By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.

U.S. President Barack Obama is seriously considering the possibility of removing every U.S. soldier from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This news is significant, but hardly surprising.

After all, ever since he took office, Obama has appeared uncomfortable about long-term troop commitments. He has frequently sparred with military commanders who want more troops and time than he’s willing to provide. Obama’s reluctance was crystallized by, ironically, the troop surge of 2009. Even as he authorized the dispatch of 30,000 more troops, he ordered that they begin to withdraw just 18 months later.

Given this unease, Obama will need strong assurances that leaving a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014 would serve a necessary purpose. Increasingly, it appears this wouldn’t be the case. This suggests Obama could well choose the zero troop option. It would be the right decision.

A residual force would be intended to serve two purposes: anti-insurgent operations and training for the Afghan military. Let’s take counterinsurgency first. The 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan during the height of the surge were unable to stabilize the country. The same goes for the roughly 100,000-strong force present now. So why should we expect an even smaller post-2014 force to do any better?

More from GPS: Afghanistan the boulevard of downsized goals

True, the administration might well argue that Afghan forces would be in better shape at the end of 2014 than they were during the surge, and so better able to cope with some American assistance. And critics have also suggested a full withdrawal of U.S. troops would trigger intensified violence in Afghanistan, replicating what happened in Iraq, which was convulsed by sectarian strife after the last U.S. troop left in 2011. These arguments, however, simply overstate the capacities of a modest residual force. Greater instability could result in Afghanistan whether or not a residual force is in place.

If Afghanistan’s violence does indeed intensify, the spark would be a combination of factors: Overmatched Afghan security forces; Taliban havens in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency that the Pakistani military refuses to eliminate; and a weak, corrupt Afghan government that fails to present itself as a better alternative to the Taliban. These are factors a modest residual force would be powerless to do much about.

The other intended aim of a residual force – training Afghan troops – is also problematic. And that’s because this purpose is already being ably served by India. In 2011, New Delhi and Kabul inked a strategic agreement that authorized India’s military to increase training of Afghan security forces that had begun in 2007. Tellingly, at the very moment Washington was acknowledging the seriousness with which it’s considering the zero option, a delegation of Indian civilian and military officials was in Kabul to discuss training programs. An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman declared this week that “the training of the Afghan army in India is ongoing, this training is effective in increasing the capacities of the forces.”

More from GPS: Are Afghans really ready to take over security?

Of course, given the perilous state of U.S.-Afghanistan relations, Obama may not even have the option of keeping troops in Afghanistan. The two sides have failed to conclude a security agreement that lays out the contours of a post-2014 U.S. military presence (negotiations are currently suspended). There’s a very real possibility that, as was the case with Iraq, an agreement will never be concluded. Afghan President Hamid Karzai insists he won’t resume these security negotiations until peace talks are launched between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, and yet the latter has insisted on direct talks only with the United States. On Tuesday, the Taliban abruptly closed its office in Qatar, which was expected to be used for talks. With the Taliban talks in jeopardy, prospects for a U.S.-Afghan security accord are as well.

Fortunately, if there’s no accord and no post-2014 force, then the United States will be spared the expense of deploying a modest troop force that plays an inconsequential and redundant role. And this gets to another justification for the zero option: It would save America much-needed money. Our nation remains scarred from its worst recession since the Great Depression, with unemployment at nearly 8 percent and GDP projected to rise only 2 percent this year. A recent Washington Post story on food insecurity in America notes that more than one in four kids now relies on government food aid – a record figure.

According to U.S. government budget figures, the monthly cost of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was more than $13 billion in 2011, and nearly $11 billion last year. These figures will fall considerably post-2014. However, given that each U.S. soldier costs $1 million per year, 10,000 troops would still cost a hefty $10 billion annually. These expenditures would disappear with a complete troop withdrawal, freeing up resources that could help feed American kids. Consider that Congress has spent $15 billion annually in recent years to address child hunger – yet many low-income kids still don’t receive government-provided meals.

This isn’t to say long-term military deployments are never worth financing, even during times of economic struggle at home. Yet such commitments are only justifiable when national security interests are at stake. With al Qaeda no longer enjoying a sanctuary in Afghanistan, and with the Afghan Taliban not in a position to take power in Kabul, it’s difficult to see what exactly is at stake.

Some may argue that Pakistan’s tribal belt-based militant network – which includes al Qaeda, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and other extremists that have targeted America – poses a threat to U.S. security interests, thereby justifying a post-2014 U.S. counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan that enables Washington to deploy drones in Pakistan. This would make sense if the Obama administration actually wanted to maintain a Pakistan-focused counterterror presence after 2014. In fact, it reportedly wants to downgrade this presence after next year.

If Washington does opt for a full military withdrawal, it will need to make clear that it’s not abandoning Afghanistan, as it effectively did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. It should emphasize, for example, that its development workers and diplomats will remain. To demonstrate its long-term commitment, Washington should intensify its efforts to help calm the region’s deep diplomatic tensions, which, if left to fester, could have destabilizing consequences in the years ahead.

This will certainly be no easy task. The Obama administration must salvage its troubled partnership with the mercurial Karzai, who in recent years has ordered U.S. troops out of Afghan villages and even threatened to join the Taliban. Karzai, despite what some (especially in Pakistan) are saying, remains relevant; there are now rumblings that Afghan elections may not happen until 2015 – and that Karzai, despite term limits, may try to stay in power. Washington should also leverage its somewhat improved relations with Islamabad to ease Pakistan’s concern about India’s deepening role in Afghanistan – an admittedly hard sell. Washington may not have much more luck smoothing the rocky Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. It pits a furious Karzai, who believes Pakistan is marginalizing him and embracing the Taliban, against a nervous Pakistani security establishment, which is alarmed by Karzai’s growing embrace of India.

This will be tough work. Yet it’s well worth it – and the energy expended on these diplomatic efforts would be a better investment than the money and weapons that go toward a residual troop presence of questionable utility.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Military • Taliban • United States

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soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Giorgio

    Insieme, unite, unite, NATO, America, Europe. Con te, cose lontano e diverso, con te, amico che credevo perso, io e te, sotto lo stesso sogno. Insieme, unite, unite, NATO, America, Europe. ... E per te, donna senza frontiere, per te, sotto le stesse bandiere, io e te, sotto lo stesso cielo. Insieme, unite, unite, NATO, America, Europe. ... Sempre piu liberi noi, Non piu un sogno e non sei piu da solo. ... Una canzone italiana per voi Stati Uniti America e Europe.

    July 11, 2013 at 5:40 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Puesto que no se mucho italiano, le contestare en espanol. Lo que escribo Ud. arriba !no es mas que pura torpeza!

      July 11, 2013 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Lo siento, Giorgio. Quise decir "escribio" en vez de "escribo" arriba.

      July 11, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • bobhamiltonchicago

      We ain't pulling out. We LOST! We're being kicked out! Who is pretending that it's anything else? The Taliban are stronger than ever.

      July 15, 2013 at 9:09 am | Reply
  2. Dennis

    Decrease it down to Zero soldiers. Increase the drone strikes by ten times. Drones can now take off from and land on aircraft carriers. That is much cheaper for us but still very effective on those Islamic terrorists.

    July 11, 2013 at 6:55 am | Reply
    • Blake

      What in the world does an aircraft carrier have to do with a drone that is several hundreds of thousands of miles inland in the Afghan mountains (i.e. nowhere near the coast) and has an operational range of only 1100 miles? Did you stop to think about your post before you hit enter?

      Besides, the unmanned aerial vehicles used by US forces in drone strikes are normally Reaper or Predator drones. The one that took off from an aircraft carrier, the X-47 (?), is a technology demonstrator platform showcasing stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology.

      July 13, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
      • joe

        "Several hundreds of thousands of Miles" Its Afghanistan not the moon dude – buy a globe

        July 15, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  3. rightospeak

    Much writing about nothing. The US is broke and needs to save money. Occupying Afghanistan serves no purpose and the troops should have been gone long time ago. Only people like Bergen support being involved ,because he would be out of a job as an "expert". Ben Laden has been dead for over 10 years and the media keeps resurrecting him.. You can only comment on his articles through Twitter and Facebook so I skipped. CNN is afraid that the truth may get out, so they limit possible comment response and throw out comments they do not like, to keep people in the dark.

    July 11, 2013 at 7:22 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    As long as India and Pakistan don't improve their relationship, Afghanistan will have to bear the brunt of their antagonism.
    For centuries in history, Afghanistan had always been a venue for power struggle between the Imperial Russia and the British Raj in India. It saw in the 1980s the Cold War fought between the Soviet Russia and the US. Today it's a "tennis court" for India and Pakistan etc. Yet the Afghans have always been very shrewd, when it comes to fighting interlopers and foreign aggressors and Karzai tries to get the best out of every situation.

    July 11, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • LiveFree

      J. I have been watching your posts for quite sometime. You seem very knowledgeable and have very well thoughout comments.

      July 14, 2013 at 1:40 am | Reply
  5. bocknobby

    'Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.' It is Afghanistan. Accept it. All the contrived American reasons for invading Afghanistan are as flimsy as those for invading Iraq. State terrorism and the people of Afghanistan reject it.

    July 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      The main reason America invaded Afghanistan is because of it's vast mineral underground resources, bocknobby. It seems that few people know this fact but then again, the right-wingers in Washington don't want us to know about it!

      July 11, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • Dennis

      other than the Taliban, which Afghans are rejecting it? How many do you know? Where in Afghanistan are you? I can introduce you to hundreds I work with every day who DONT reject US intervention and support, who DONT want the taliban back, who are sick of war, sick of the Taliban, and generally sick of people like you who pretend to be speaking for them when you are only speaking from your own egotistical self-righteous ignorant opinion.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Reply
      • bocknobby

        Yes, Dennis, am sure there thousands of Afghans who are grateful every day for the intervention of the Americans and others, including the puppet regime that has no influence outside downtown Kabul. Of course those around you are happy to see you . . . drop into some remote village and chat with folks . . .

        September 30, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  6. Jeremy

    The main issue here, not well discussed is really the Afghan leadership, or better said lack of it. Karzai is a snake, corrupt and completely incompetent. If we are to put our soldiers in harms way for another country, then we should at very least ensure decent leadership. We have pumped billions into Afghanistan (part of the problem) and nobody there is accountable. A war like that is unwinnable without local leadership. Why are we spending a single cent of money we don't have to support the likes of Karzai?

    July 11, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  7. dmf

    The U. S. troops need to come home from Afghanistan sooner than later . If the troops are able to return earlier than December 2014 ( Amen to that .) Any early date of troops return , would save many more lives ! Afghanistan is not a friendly place for U. S. troops . The War on terrorism ( 2001 – to date) the longest in modern history has taken a huge and heavy toll on U. S. economy , communities and families , not only for now but a long time in the future . The U. S. should focus on rebuilding economy , providing jobs , and whatever it takes to take care of all War veterans , particularly from Afghanistan and Unnecessary Iraq War ( 2003 -11 ) .

    July 11, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  8. the dude

    This article is sooo right.

    Pulling out is hard to do. sometimes you just want to stay there.

    July 12, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply
    • Richard

      I would tend to agree. I don't see much likelihood for increasing long term stability by keeping a small contingent of US troops in Afghanistan. Afghanistan will have to learn to stand alone sometime and 2014 is as good a time as any.

      July 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  9. JoeP199

    Although I agree with the thrust of this article, I must question the following paragraph:
    "If Washington does opt for a full military withdrawal, it will need to make clear that it’s not abandoning Afghanistan, as it effectively did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. It should emphasize, for example, that its development workers and diplomats will remain. To demonstrate its long-term commitment, Washington should intensify its efforts to help calm the region’s deep diplomatic tensions, which, if left to fester, could have destabilizing consequences in the years ahead."
    There is no way we can allow our diplomats and development workers to remain without providing security for them. To entrust their security to the Afghan government is to place them in continuous danger.

    July 13, 2013 at 12:31 am | Reply
  10. evilroyslade

    Bring all our soldiers back, let the Afghans defend themselves. We had no business invading them.

    July 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  11. The astute observer

    Stop the wars for Israhell! Get out NOW!

    July 13, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  12. John

    If not USA, then FRANCE will take over Afghanistan.

    July 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
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    July 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
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