News reports Monday that the White House is considering pulling all troops out of Afghanistan after 2014 reignited buzz in all corners of Washington as to whether the administration is firing a warning shot or seriously considering a plan to cut and run.
President Barack Obama's consideration of the so-called "zero option," as reported by the New York Times Monday, comes amid frustrating times in Afghanistan where negotiations with the Taliban have stalled, with the Afghan government suspending the peace talks.
The local economy remains fragile ahead of next year's elections, which are not guaranteed to produce a legitimate leader, even if they are conducted fairly.
"When you can't meet the political conditions, the military conditions and the economic conditions of staying, you're going to consider other options," says Anthony Cordesman, who previously served as director of intelligence assessment for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"This is, in some ways, a message that is real," says Cordesman, now with D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "How real it is in terms of the administration's willingness to actually withdraw, if it can avoid it, is a different issue."
Afghan fighters need trainers and enablers down to the corps level, and will need air support until at least 2016, Cordesman says.
"Those numbers are reasonable," he says. "They're only reasonable if you have Afghan partners that will grant you the conditions, the facilities, the immunities and the protections that you need."
Peace talks in Afghanistan came to a grinding halt in June when Afghan President Hamid Karzai called out what he saw as a contradiction in American statements and actions toward the Taliban. This statement came less than a day after the U.S. announced it would begin negotiations with the Taliban, which have drawn their own skepticism from Afghan watchers.
The White House has remained mum on its considerations for troop levels past Jan. 1, 2015. Top U.S. generals in Afghanistan, including veteran commanders Marine Gen. John Allen and Marine Gen. James Mattis, have put forward a recommendation of 13,600 troops. This could also mean an additional 5,000 troops from allied countries.
The Pentagon on Tuesday indicated that there is still plenty of time to make a decision.
"We still have time to enter into an agreement with our Afghan partners," said spokesman George Little, citing the views of current ISAF commander Gen. Joseph Dunford. "It's July 2013 and our drawdown won't be complete until December 2014. We have a lot of intervening events to grapple with until then."
"We realize there are going to be some points of contention from time to time, that's natural in any partnership. But we think we can get through them," he said.
Military strategists, including Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, have expressed optimism toward the Afghans' ability to fight for themselves after 2014. They still fall way short, however, of critical mission sets such as MEDEVACS, intelligence gathering and heavy weaponry such as air strikes.
Planning in Afghanistan is not entirely tied to the U.S. presence there, but that is how it's worked for the past several years, says Omar Samad, who served as Afghanistan's ambassador to France and Canada in the last decade.
"The 2014 date is just not enough for them to take full charge of all responsibilities without any help," says Samad, now a senior expert at the U.S. Institutes of Peace. "It runs counter to the planning we have all been working on for years."
"Try every means possible to mend relations at this very critical juncture," he offers. "Otherwise, this benefits no one but the Taliban and their extremist affiliates in the region."
The Pentagon has said for months that it plans to potentially leave behind troops whose sole purpose would involve eliminating remaining elements of al-Qaida and its affiliates, and training and equipping the fledgling Afghan forces.
"You have to get out eventually. The question is, if you stay a year or two longer, is it going to change anything?" says Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Al-Qaida's base of operations in Afghanistan has been all but destroyed, says Korb, but the resulting freedom is not going to amount to a Western style democracy. At the very least, this could force the Taliban and Karzai's government to cooperate.
"It will get both of them to negotiate. Karzai and company has to realize you can't lean on [the U.S.] forever," Korb says, pointing to the continued violence in Iraq, which U.S. troops left completely in 2009. Iraq, like Afghanistan, created an agreement with the U.S. that involved an eventual drawdown.
Korb recounts meeting with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki at Georgetown shortly before that drawdown. He asked the al-Maliki if there was anything the U.S. could do to stay.
Maliki replied, "You guys signed a contract. Agree to it."