Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission: