In recent years, we’ve seen occasional reports about a changing timetable for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, some of which have proven accurate, others less so. And with this history in mind, it’s generally best not to overreact to rumors.
That said, if this front-page New York Times piece is accurate, U.S. policy in Afghanistan may soon receive a major shake-up – and the end of the war may come far sooner than expected.
Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.
The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 was gaining momentum before the June 27 video conference, according to the officials. But since then, 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.
An unnamed senior Western official in Kabul told the NYT, “There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option. It is now becoming one of them, and if you listen to some people in Washington, it is maybe now being seen as a realistic path.”
The Obama’s administration’s stated policy is an end to the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with the to-be-negotiated “residual force” remaining in the country in 2015 and beyond. That policy reportedly came under review after President Obama talked directly to Karzai two weeks about peace talks with the Taliban – the conversation was intended to diffuse tensions, but the Afghan leader nevertheless used the occasion to accuse the U.S. of acting in bad faith towards the Karzai government.
Obama apparently reminded Karzai that it’s been American lives that have been sacrificed to bolster the Afghan leader. The White House soon after began reconsidering whether Karzai is a reliable partner worthy of an ongoing war.
What we don’t know, of course, is who talked to the NYT. Is this a trial balloon intended to get Karzai’s attention? Is it the result of elements from within the administration eager for an expedited withdrawal? Is it an accurate reflection of the president’s current thinking? Without more information we don’t yet know.
But it suggests this 12-year war – the longest in American history – may be ending even sooner than expected. Conservatives will no doubt howl, insisting that our departure will only lead to more violence. That may well be true, though that’s also a recipe for an indefinite presence and decades-long conflict, which no one seriously considers a credible option.