As the relationship between Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration deteriorates, so too do our long-term prospects of influencing events at the end of America’s longest war. CBS reports this morning that the White House is now considering a complete pullout — a “zero option” — next year, rather than a phased transition to an advisory presence in Afghanistan:
The Obama Administration is considering a complete pullout of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 2014, a reversal of the current policy of keeping a small number of units there after the scheduled 2014 drawdown and a sign of mounting tension between President Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett reports that top White House aides admit the change reflects Obama’s mounting personal frustration with Karzai. U.S.-Afghan tensions boiled over in June, following initial steps toward a launch of coordinated formal peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
One day after the talks between U.S. and Afghan officials and the Taliban were set to begin, Karzai publicly denounced the effort and suspended all conversations with the U.S. over future military cooperation.
The so-called “zero option” would remove the residual counter-terrorism and advisory force set to stay in Afghanistan after the 2014 draw-down. The option has been on the table since January but, Garrett said, until this week it was raised more as a point of leverage in conversations between Washington and Kabul than as a serious consideration.
We’ve heard the “zero option” before, in January, as Major Garrett explains. At the time, it was considered a leverage point, but leverage for what, and with whom? Karzai doesn’t want American troops in Afghanistan for a long period of time, and would prefer the zero option if he could count on his own security forces to hold the line. Having a foreign army on Afghanistan’s soil complicates his political situation long term, and he knows it.
It’s the US that needs a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan, more so than Karzai does. The US wants a rapprochement between the Taliban and Karzai so that we can focus on al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan. We want an end to the civil war to make that job easier. So far, Karzai doesn’t share in that enthusiasm, and neither does the Taliban. They made that clear by closing their office in Qatar after being told they couldn’t represent themselves as the legitimate government of Afghanistan:
The Afghan Taliban have closed their office in the Gulf State of Qatar at least temporarily to protest the removal of a sign they had put up identifying the movement as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a diplomat and Taliban official said Tuesday.
The office was opened less than a month ago to facilitate peace talks, and has also come under pressure for using the same white flag flown during the Taliban’s five-year rule of Afghanistan that ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Qatar removed the sign and flag last month after Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded their removal.
Both officials, familiar with the peace talks in the Qatari capital of Doha said the offices have been temporarily closed.
“They (Taliban) do not go out of their homes in Doha and have not gone to the office since the removal of the flag and the plaque,” the Taliban official said in a telephone interview. He said the Taliban blamed Karzai and the United States for the breakdown in talks, accusing both of using the name and the flag as an excuse.
A diplomat in the region who is familiar with the talks said: “The (Taliban) Political Commission has stopped all international political meetings and is not using the office.”
If the US is serious about pursuing the “zero option,” then the obvious question is … why wait until mid-2014 for withdrawal? Why not start now?