There are currently 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is set to go down to 34,000 by the beginning of 2014. Many had thought that by 2015 as many as 15,000 troops would remain to train Afghan security forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations if a Status of Forces Agreement deal is struck with the Afghan government. But yesterday's New York Times reported that the Obama administration is now seriously considering pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan – a la Iraq – by the end of 2014.
This so-called "zero option" has gained traction as relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai have deteriorated. According to the Times' reporters:
Mr. Obama is committed to ending America's military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small "residual force" behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
The security deal is complicated because it basically singles out Pakistan as a major source of militancy in the region, could obligate the U.S. to attack Taliban positions in Pakistan and wants specified numbers of U.S. troops to remain after 2014 and a multi-year financial commitment to the Afghan security forces.
It is also unclear if there is a way around this impasse regarding peace talks. The Taliban won't speak to the Karzai government because they call it an American puppet and the Karzai government only wants to negotiate directly with the Taliban. President Karzai has also offended the United States and other governments by blaming the west for Islamic extremism.
Complicating this even further is that fact that elections are supposed to take place in 2014 where a new Afghan president should be elected. (I say should because Karzai is term limited, but some think he may try to change the rules to allow for a third term for himself.)
What will all of this mean in practical terms? Critics of the Obama administration contend that such a pullout will be disastrous for America's reputation. In their view, this will lower American standing amongst allies or potential allies and be a victory for al-Qaida and other extremists.
But is this accurate? Without giving the administration a pass for anything, it is unclear how pulling out of Afghanistan will irreparably harm American power. If Osama bin Laden were still alive, perhaps one could make an argument that the mission was not complete, but he isn't. (And Ayman al-Zawahiri will live the rest of the days of his life in fear of a drone strike and special operations force raid that will hopefully come.)
As someone wise I know said about the Afghan government: "You can't want it more than they do." Unless the Afghan government stands up and gets serious about defending its country, the United States and its allies present shouldn't underwrite the regime with blood and treasure.
With the above having been said, if the United States does pull out, it should make crystal clear to both the Afghan government and the Taliban that if any of the international terrorists that made their homes in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 return, then it will take unilateral military action at times and places of its choosing to deal with such groups or individuals. Having less of a presence on the ground will complicate intelligence gathering efforts for this, but once the U.S. makes good on this threat the first time or two or three, that should send a clear message about American resolve.
Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institut in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.