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 Barack Obama chats with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the start of a dinner at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 28, 2010.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Dec. 9, 2013, 5:18 p.m.

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.

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