Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has observed Afghan elections and made several trips there sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force.
The Obama administration is reportedly considering an accelerated pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, followed by a “zero option” — the complete elimination of an American and, presumably, international military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. This is an understandable but unwise idea. Even raising it as a bargaining device is a mistake in our ongoing mission in Afghanistan — a place that President Obama clearly considers crucial to U.S. security, given that more than 60,000 U.S. troops are still there.
In fairness, the zero-option idea has appeal not only because the war has been long and frustrating but also because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been so difficult to work with. Beyond all the past brouhahas over corruption, tainted elections and other matters, there is the burst of invective Karzai recently leveled against the United States over what he described as a duplicitous approach to negotiating with the Taliban. Karzai has criticized Washington and broken off negotiations about the long-term U.S. presence because, when the Taliban opened an office for exploratory peace talks in Doha, Qatar, last month, it again called itself the Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and otherwise sought to portray the new facility as a quasi-embassy for a government in waiting. Karzai decided that Washington was complicit because the Obama administration failed to prevent that outcome.
Karzai worries that U.S. officials will secretly cut a deal with the Taliban at his expense to hasten the U.S. troop departure from Afghanistan. Karzai has also accused the United States of instigating radical extremism on his territory, and he suspects that our real desire in having bases in Afghanistan after next year is quasi-imperialist, with an eye toward broader regional purposes beyond the immediate needs of Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
These actions and this attitude toward Washington are indeed regrettable. But they are no reason for the United States to threaten to pull the plug on all it has invested in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s recent outbursts, although excessive, are partly understandable. He had warned the Obama administration in private and public that the Taliban would seek to use its new political office in Doha as a virtual embassy. Washington not only failed to prevent that development but also seemed caught off-guard when it happened.
The bigger point, however, is this: Karzai is not Afghanistan, nor does he represent all Afghans. He won two presidential elections — and the United States should do a better job of acknowledging that he earned a mandate from his own people, despite election irregularities. But Karzai’s frustrations with the war and the international community, and his frequent lashing-out, should not be conflated with any desire by most Afghans for U.S. troops to leave. Virtually all other Afghan political leaders I know very much want the international community to stay and remember all too well what happened a quarter-century ago, when the United States abruptly terminated its role in their country.