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Security Insiders: With Karzai's Delays, Time to Plan for the Zero Option in Afghanistan

A majority of Insiders says the Afghan War was worth fighting.


President Obama chats with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 28, 2010.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A narrow majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders say it's time to plan to implement the zero option in Afghanistan, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai insists on delaying signing a long-term security pact with the U.S. until after his successor is elected in April.

Obama administration officials are calling on Karzai to sign the agreement by the end of the year; otherwise, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says pulling out all U.S. troops after the formal end of combat operations next year—and not leaving any follow-on force as expected—is a real possibility, because Washington won't be able to plan for a mission or coordinate with allies. Yet 58 percent of the pool of national security and foreign policy experts say it's time to truly consider pulling the plug on the operation. "Being indefinitely involved in someone else's civil war, with a troop commitment too small to change the course of that war, does not serve U.S. interests," one Insider said. 


Several Insiders, however, believe Karzai is bluffing about his willingness to risk a long-term partnership with Washington and think the U.S. should take a tough line with its sometimes-vexing ally. "Karzai is playing for the future, we are playing for the past. Call his bluff," an Insider said.

The U.S., some Insiders said, should start planning to leave no troops in the country after 2014 but remain flexible. "There is still time," one Insider said. "Karzai will do what Karzai does. But we can't have the entire war rest on the whims of one person." 

This could prove to be a useful negotiating tactic, too, for a better outcome in the country. "A credible zero option may spur leaders in Afghanistan who favor continued U.S. military presence to put more pressure on Karzai to sign," an Insider said. "But it may be too late. Karzai ia a one-man political IED. His antics have further undermined U.S. public and political support for spending tens of billions of dollars more to prop up an unsustainable centralized government."


However, a sizable faction of Insiders—42 percent—urged patience with Karzai before planning to pull out all U.S. troops. "The zero option is in neither nation's interest," one Insider said. Karzai is engaging in brinkmanship to extract concessions, another added. "We should make no more concessions, but neither should we withdraw out of spite or impatience," one Insider said. "The Afghan elite overwhelmingly favors a continued U.S. presence—Karzai is isolated on this. We can and should wait him out."

The Afghan leader, an Insider said, is "a difficult character, who fancies himself a king. But the security situation in the country mandates a U.S. presence, even if minimal."

Separately, as the Afghanistan War winds down, a majority of nearly 70 percent of Insiders said it was worth fighting—a bigger margin than a Pew Research Center Poll of civilians in October, in which only 56 percent said the U.S. made the right decision in using military force in Afghanistan. 

"We didn't have an option in 2001. The questions are whether we made the right resourcing decisions as we balanced Iraq and Afghanistan and whether the strategy made sense along the way," one Insider said. "But remembering the atmosphere in Washington 12 years ago, when we did not know the extent of the Qaida threat we faced from Afghanistan, there didn't seem to be an option other than intervention."


Still, some Insiders, in hindsight, criticized the war effort even though they supported the initial mission. "The initial action to dislodge and hold accountable those responsible for 9/11 was in our national security interest," one Insider said. "Taking our eye off the ball to parry to the misguided actions in Iraq robbed the United States of the ability to bring the Afghanistan theater to a successful close in 2003 when it made the most sense to do so."

The war, another added, "was essential to move the battlefield out of the U.S. and in fighting al-Qaida: mitigating their ability to conduct complex operations and killing Osama bin Laden." Today, the center of gravity in that fight has shifted, the Insider said. "We no longer have a U.S. vital interest in Afghanistan."

A minority of Insiders disagreed and said the war was not worth fighting. "Wars are only worth fighting if you win them militarily and politically. The U.S. employed a series of unworkable strategies, crafted by people who would have had difficulty finding Afghanistan on a map prior to 9/11," one Insider said. "We should have confined our mission to eviscerating al-Qaida and its fellow travelers. Instead, we let 'mission creep' determine our strategy and tactics and have, sadly, little to show for our service members' sacrifices." 

1. The U.S. insists Afghanistan must sign the security pact by the end of the year—otherwise, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can't recommend that President Obama keep planning for a post-2014 force. Washington should:

(63 votes)

  • Plan to implement the zero option 58%
  • Be patient with Karzai 42%

Zero option

"We are in an endless, inescapable loop in Afghanistan if we stay. Because our impact is corrupting, we have no leverage to eliminate corruption."

"As a negotiating matter, it looks like the only way to get to an agreement will be to prepare to go forward without one—and even that may not work."

"Planning for the zero option is win-win: It prepares for a scenario that is now more likely than not, and gives us additional leverage in negotiations with the Karzai government."

"The U.S. strategy should be to patiently press Karzai to sign the security pact using the possibility of implementing the zero option as leverage. Karzai understands Afghanistan needs U.S. support and presence post-2014. The U.S. should not allow Karzai's theatrics to undermine U.S. interests."

"We have no interests in Afghanistan that cannot be served from elsewhere."

"Being indefinitely involved in someone else's civil war, with a troop commitment too small to change the course of that war, does not serve U.S. interests."

"There is no strategic interest to stay. Nation-building in this place is insane. The reasons we have stayed so long are overwhelmingly emotional [ones] of trying to justify the blood and treasure we have spent by making something of this 15th-century collection of tribes that many other powers could not do. And to what end—it just creates a huge irritant in the region, especially Pakistan."

"We should have two plans: zero residual force, and around 6,500 troops as part of a slightly larger coalition. Planning can go forward with either in mind for another three to four months. It's time we ignored Karzai, who is desperately trying to prove he's a great Afghan statesman and not a U.S. puppet."

"Zero option is a misnomer (a type of absolutist non-option), but the policy equivalent of 'walking away' will prod neighboring powers, including Iran but excluding Pakistan, to find ways to reduce strife and guarantee Afghan sovereignty and neutrality."

"President Karzai is a grandstanding buffoon who should be put in his place once and for all. He wouldn't be president of Afghanistan if it weren't for the U.S., and he should be made to never forget that fact."

"Start planning. Call his bluff."

"We should go to zero whatever Karzai does with the deal."

"Not planning to implement a zero option gives Karzai all the leverage."

"The hurdles to stay will only increase; corruption is too ingrained; rule of law is suspect, and we no longer have a U.S. vital interest in Afghanistan. Shift focus and investment to allies in the region."

Be patient

"The U.S. does not need a large residual force in Afghanistan. But it needs to retain the capability for robust and timely counterterrorism operations."

"But keep the pressure on."

"President Karzai, educated in India, requires more patience than demonstrated by the administration. Most important, the administration must not lecture in public."

"The support for the pact is widespread across Afghanistan. It's not that we need to be patient with Karzai as much as give time for internal pressure to help get the deal signed."

"Karzai will cave before the end of the year because of the intense domestic political pressure he feels. He's just concerned about his legacy. We could help our cause by not conducting those operations that tick him off until he signs."

"Obama may make Karzai his excuse for leaving, but everyone—including Iran—will get the message: America is out the door."

"While there is little public support for staying in Afghanistan, pulling out would result in a return to pre-9/11 norms for much of the country, meaning any progress during the last decade of intervention would be lost. That is not the return on investment of blood and treasure the nation should accept."

"At this point it is best to wait until after the Afghan presidential election and deal with Karzai's successor."

"Timing not chiseled in stone!"

"Karzai is on a knife's edge, and we are the only tool he has available to look strong. Without us, he is finished. And without him, Afghanistan—or at least a fair portion of it—will return to Taliban control."

"We have invested too much money and lives to allow this deal to fall through. Karzai is difficult, but patience is rewarded in that region."

2. The Afghan War is winding down. Was it worth fighting?

(63 votes)

  • Yes 69%
  • No 25%
  • Neither 6%


"Let's remember how it started. The attack on the USA on 9/11 came from there. We abandoned them once in 1990; let's not do that again."

"Obama had it right when he said this wasn't an optional war, but rather one that was imposed on us."

"History will tell us how well the war was fought and whether it was won or lost. The military won the battles, but it remains unclear if the U.S. government won or lost the war. Generals win battles. Nations win wars."

'There was no alternative to fighting it in 2001. The real question is whether we should have stopped some time after that. And the answer here is that we should either have resourced it properly or stopped; we did neither."

"All was good until Tommy Franks failed at Tora Bora.... The rest is history."

"Ultimately, the value of Afghanistan is as much about the effects on Pakistan, then India, and ultimately China as it is about the Taliban and al-Qaida."

"Initial overthrow of the Taliban was worthwhile. After that, only a more limited mission."

"As a Republican I hate to admit it, but critics of President Bush were correct: The war in Afghanistan was the war that needed to be fought. Iraq took our eye off of the ball."

"The problem is that we fought about seven different Afghan wars. Having a grand strategy that would have been properly resourced after 2003 would have made a great difference." 

"A qualified 'yes.' We destroyed the Qaida leadership that attacked us even as they hid out in caves in an as faraway place as there is. We showed the world we can and will go anywhere we need to to protect ourselves. We showed awesome power of our military."

"That is all to the good, especially in this dangerous region. But we stayed too long."

"Let's remember where 9/11 originated. What went wrong was our loss of our strategic objectives. We got into nation-building when we shouldn't have in a country that we do not understand. Only Afghans can determine their fate; we cannot fight and win their war for them."

"Not only worth fighting, but worth fighting better—smarter, longer, and more successfully."

"How did Zhou Enlai respond in 1972 when asked about the impact of the French Revolution? 'Too early to say.' "

"It was a necessary war in 2001, but like Iraq, we blew the endgame."

"It is worth stabilizing"

"To disrupt al-Qaida."

"Yes, up to a point. We needed to eliminate a radical regime and we did. The nation building part was a waste of treasure and lives."


"The initial U.S. attack against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts was fully justified. But the follow-on counterinsurgency effort was a bridge too far."

"It was a total waste of lives and money, just as the wars in Iraq and Vietnam were."

"The early counterterrorism effort against al-Qaida and their Taliban hosts was worthwhile. The follow-on, counterinsurgency campaign, too expensive and ambitious, has achieved few goals of strategic interest to the West. The effort will not be sustained."

"Afghanistan will revert to more decentralized governance, in keeping with its traditions. This will be a human tragedy, including for millions of women and for the young. They have had unprecedented opportunities for education and now have higher expectations."

"The initial intervention was a justified and worthwhile response to 9/11, but the subsequent long-term involvement in counterinsurgency was not."

"It began as a justified and broadly accepted punitive war after 9/11. But we brought in with us a baggage train of 'good intentions' fated to fail in the harsh Afghan environment. Shouldn't have stayed beyond 2004-05."

"No, as of today, but ask again in 30 years."

"The first Afghan War—which was mostly over in 2002—was worth fighting. The social engineering/nation-building project that has gone on since then stands as an example of the hubris and stupidity of U.S. foreign policy."


"It was worthwhile while it was an economy of force enterprise. Obama's surrender to the COIN foolishness ruined the project."

"Had the United States not interrupted its Afghan reconstruction by launching a second war in Iraq, the outcome in Afghanistan would have been so different that this question would not even have been posed."

"In terms of strategic achievements vs. costs at the end of 2013, the war has not been worth fighting. But the unknown factor—what will Afghanistan look like in five years, 10 years—might tilt that assessment toward the positive. Mullah Omar has publicly made the turn on modern education and has taken an initial step on women's rights. The Taliban are now among the 'connected' population in Afghanistan—over 65 percent tele-penetration with the iPhone highly prized. How the reincorporation of Pashtun insurgents and their supporters plays out will provide the long-term answer. Think of Vietnam in April 1975 and today. Two stories, two answers to the same question."

"Was it worth ejecting al-Qaida from a secure base in Central Asia? Of course! Was it worth the next 12 years of conflict? Probably not."

National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

This article appears in the December 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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