In White House's 'Zero Option,' Experts Wonder What Obama Is Up To

Floating the 'Zero Option' of U.S. troops in Afghanistan sends the wrong message, experts say.

U.S. Marines and Afghan border police off-load from a helicopter in Afghanistan.
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News that the White House is considering withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by 2014 surprised many who have been following American progress there.

Some experts who have endorsed pulling out of Afghanistan were thrilled by the prospect, while others maintain it still requires tens of thousands of troops to get the job done. Still others think this is a bargaining chip for President Barack Obama to get what he wants before heading into meetings with Afghan President Karzai on Friday.

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Whatever the outcome, discussion of the so-called "Zero Option" has redefined how experts see the conclusion of the United States' longest war.

Military historian Fred Kagan of the America Enterprise Institute and his wife Kimberly Kagan penned an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, decrying any withdrawal of U.S. troops that they say would eliminate the military's ability to maintain security in Afghanistan.

He tells U.S. News that the Zero Option—or even leaving fewer than the 30,000 troops as some commanders have asked for—would amount to throwing away everything the United States has fought for in the last 10 years. It would also undercut counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in South Asia and allow the terrorist group to reestablish safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Based on the message coming out the White House, the president has decided he doesn't care about winning this war," Kagan says. "It would be valuable if he would explain to the American people why he's decided the objectives he laid out in 2009 are no longer important to American national security."

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Just announcing a zero option would generate fear throughout Afghanistan, he says, particularly among power brokers in the north who would assume the Taliban would regain power and continue the ethnic civil war that plagued the country in the 1990s. And coalition troops would likely have to forgo much of the 2013 fighting season to begin the drawdown.

"Various elements of the Taliban will launch usual counterattacks this year in attempts to regain their territory," Kagan says. "They are likely to launch those attacks with particular vigor. And since we will be pulling out, rather than fighting, they'll have much more success than they have in the past."

Afghan National Security Forces are designed to work with international forces, he says, just as the United States still supports French military operations, for example. Afghan forces wouldn't hold together without U.S. support, he says.

But other experts believe the Zero Option discussion is an important part of negotiating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan for the next few years.

"It's a debate that needs to happen. Committing manpower with no decisive end date really just detaches conditionalities on the performances of Afghan security forces," says Malou Innocent, foreign policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute.

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Coalition forces largely see the Afghan military as unmotivated, highly dependent and making too little progress, she says. The longer America remains, the more it turns into Afghanistan's "perpetual crutch."

"Sadly, it may revert back to the 1990s," she says. "I think for myself and many Americans and many analysts in Washington—aside from the Kagans—it's sort of a recognition that it's not that we should commit America's limited resources indefinitely, but it shows that its problematic for the United States to try and repair failed states that are emerging from civil conflict."

This discussion is also important for Afghan leadership to hear, says Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"They have to basically put Karzai in this place," he says. "He's been talking about 'You guys are causing me problems, we don't want you here.' "

Floating the Zero Option may be a way for the White House to gain concessions from Karzai.