The ‘zero’ option for Afghanistan

An unfair election in Afghanistan will lead to chaos and having no elections will ensure a continued insurgency.

Sabina Khan July 16, 2013
The writer has a master’s degree in conflict-resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and blogs at

As 2014 approaches, President Barack Obama is considering an accelerated drawdown process, which includes a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by next year. White House Spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that the “zero option” is under consideration.

The US government has been in talks with President Hamid Karzai about leaving a small “residual force” of about 8,000 troops behind. These negotiations have mostly been indecisive and started to fall apart after US attempts to conduct peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar. President Karzai responded ferociously to the opening of a political office, in Qatar, which provided legitimacy to the Taliban, who hoisted their flag and displayed a plaque identifying themselves as the representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban viewed these talks as an opportunity to set up a government in exile rather than as negotiations for peace. After President Karzai’s reaction, the Taliban’s flag was lowered, their plaque was removed and the office was temporarily shut down. Following this dispute, President Karzai rejected the Taliban talks and ended negotiations with the US over the security deal required to keep American troops in Afghanistan post-2014. Currently, there are around 60,000 US troops present in Afghanistan and this number will drop to 34,000 next year.

On June 27, a video conference to address concerns between Presidents Obama and Karzai did not end well, according to officials present from both sides. The option to leave zero troops behind was never off the table but after the fateful video conference, it has become a serious consideration. So far, the Obama Administration has been unwilling to give a definitive answer and it is quite possible that the zero option is a bluff to rein in President Karzai’s erratic behaviour as the US pushes for a security agreement with Afghanistan. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 11, Jim Dobbins, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, avoided giving a direct answer but stated that President Obama is “still reviewing his options” regarding troop withdrawal.

If American troops do remain in Afghanistan, the residual force is expected to be between 5,000 and 12,000 troops. Their stated mission would be to train and advise the Afghan security forces as they take up the fight to protect Afghanistan from terrorists. Bargaining with the Taliban puts the US in a precarious situation since the Taliban do not recognise the Constitution of Afghanistan. In exchange for assurances that the Taliban will not launch international attacks from Afghanistan, any troops left behind can expect to support a fragile government against terror attacks from a negotiating partner.

Afghanistan also faces a rising political crisis as the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for April 2014 are most likely to be delayed and will lack credibility in the eyes of the Afghans. An unfair election will lead to chaos and having no elections will ensure a continued insurgency. Following a total withdrawal, the $8 billion annual military and civilian aid to Afghanistan will be significantly reduced, forcing the Afghan government to cut more than half of their current expenditures. Then there is the question of what will happen to US military equipment and supplies worth billions of dollars but considered too expensive to lug back home. There are some 30,000 Humvees reported to be destroyed or left behind.

By all appearances, the US has given up on most of its goals and is going to abandon Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban. This is a sad end to a conflict, which began with such lofty ambitions, where success was initially based on a list of benchmarks, including ensuring women rights. These days, however, a safe withdrawal has become the singular symbol of success. All resources are being geared towards negotiating a clean withdrawal with the Taliban. Will the US pay off the militants for safe passage? There is still time for sensible solutions to prevail, but growing contradictions and confusion in US policy towards Afghanistan point towards an irresponsible withdrawal that is destined to leave chaos in its wake.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2013.

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