WASHINGTON – Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.
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 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.
Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
A videoconference between Obama and Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both U.S. and Afghan officials with knowledge of the conversation. Karzai, according to those sources, accused the United States of trying to negotiate a separate peace with both the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan, leaving Afghanistan’s fragile government exposed to its enemies.
Karzai has made similar accusations in the past. But those comments were delivered to Afghans — not to Obama, who responded by pointing out the American lives that have been lost propping up Karzai’s government, the officials said.
The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 was gaining momentum before the June 27 videoconference, according to the officials. But since then, the idea of a complete military exit similar to the U.S. military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.
The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the pace of the pullout and exactly how many U.S. troops to leave behind in Afghanistan. The goal remains to negotiate a long-term security deal, they said, but the hardening of negotiating stances on both sides could result in a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where a deal failed to materialize despite widespread expectations that a compromise would be reached and U.S. forces would remain.
“There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option,” said a senior Western official in Kabul. “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 official, however, said he hoped some in the Karzai government were beginning to understand that the zero option was now a distinct possibility, and that “they’re learning now, not later, when it’s going to be too late.”
As it stands, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — around 63,000 — is scheduled to go down to 34,000 by February. The White House has said the majority of troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year, although it now appears that the schedule could accelerate to bring the bulk of the troops — if not all of them — home by next summer, as the annual fighting season winds down.
Talks between the United States and Afghanistan over a long-term security deal have faltered in recent months over the Afghan government’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security and, in essence, commit to declaring Pakistan the main obstacle in the fight against militancy in the region.
The guarantees sought by Afghanistan, if implemented, could compel the United States to attack Taliban havens in Pakistan long after 2014, when the Obama administration has said it hoped to dial back the CIA’s covert drone war there.
Karzai also wants the Obama administration to specify the number of troops it would leave in Afghanistan after 2014 and make a multiyear financial commitment to the Afghan army and the police.