TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan: Zero Option Unlikely
July 29, 2013
Bottom Line Up Front
• While an agreement will be reached that will allow US and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, that accord is not likely to be reached by the US-imposed deadline of October 2013. This will create additional uncertainty in Afghanistan and the region, as well as among Allied force contributors.
• Discord over the post-2014 force structure will cause faction leaders in Afghanistan to rearm and recruit militiamen, while its neighbors will pursue policies designed to promote their own interests rather than those of a secure and economically stable Afghanistan.
As of late July 2013, media reports suggest there is active discussion within the Obama Administration about a so-called zero option for Afghanistan: the total withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan when the current international security mission ends on December 31, 2014. As was the case in Iraq, it has been widely expected that the United States and its partners would leave a residual force in place after 2014 to mentor the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and continue to carry out combat operations against selected Taliban targets. In Iraq, however, a zero option was realized when Iraq’s political structure—believing its forces could handle a then calm security environment—balked at allowing a US troop presence after the December 2011 withdrawal date. Afghanistan has been widely viewed as different from Iraq in that no major Afghan factions want the international presence terminated completely, and the Taliban insurgency is assessed as too active for the ANSF to tackle it on its own.
The zero option has reportedly been raised by the Obama Administration because of the difficulty in dealing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The latest strain arose in the context of negotiating a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) under which US forces remaining in Afghanistan after 2014 would be subject to US law. The US Department of Defense considers the “immunities issue” a nonnegotiable requirement to keep US forces there after 2014. Negotiations in this area began in November 2012 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, recently said that an agreement must be reached by October 2013 so that the United States can plan its post-2014 force structure and the schedule for drawing down the 63,000 US troops still there (a number that will be further reduced to 34,000 by February 2014).
Despite this deadline, Karzai suspended the negotiations last month when the Taliban movement opened an office in Doha, Qatar, and—contrary to understandings reached with the United States and Qatar—advertised it as the headquarters of a Taliban government in exile. That office was intended, as agreed by the Obama Administration, only to negotiate outstanding US-Taliban issues such as prisoner exchanges, with the intention of later using it as a forum for Afghan government-Taliban negotiations.
Karzai interpreted the Taliban’s expanded ambition for the office as foreshadowing a potential US-Taliban accord that would cut his government out of negotiations on post-2014 arrangements, and he was acting on this perspective when he moved to suspend the BSA negotiations. The talks have yet to resume, although working groups on many of the subordinate issues continue to meet and make progress. Still, Karzai’s recalcitrance caused the Obama Administration to foster the perception that it might not necessarily retain any forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
The Zero Option Highly Unlikely
Before this latest impasse, a consensus was emerging in Washington as well as in Allied capitals that centered on a post-2014 international force structure of approximately 15,000 military personnel, with the United States committing 10,000 troops to that mission. US military commanders had suggested somewhat higher numbers for the US force (13,600), but White House officials reportedly steered them towards slightly lower figures because of the country’s war weariness and the high expenses of deploying forces in Afghanistan.
The US planning for a post-2014 force has been predicated on the nearly undisputed assessment—one shared by both Afghan and American policymakers—that the ANSF is not yet sufficiently capable of preventing Taliban battlefield gains without the mentorship and backstopping of international forces. That fundamental assessment has not been changed by the spring US-Afghanistan disputes; as a result, virtually every Afghan official acknowledges that the survival of the central government in Kabul would be threatened if a zero option were to be implemented.
If US forces are not in Afghanistan after 2014, then Allied forces will also not deploy despite preliminary pledges from Germany, Britain, Turkey, and others to do so. Given that stark reality, it is almost certain that Karzai will restart BSA negotiations and back away from his insistence that any post-2014 agreement provide for US combat operations against Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, and that Washington guarantee specific levels of ongoing financial support to the ANSF and the Afghan government. The US will likely agree to address some of Karzai’s concerns as Washington policymakers say they will not repeat the mistake of 1989 when the US “abandoned” Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. However, the suspension of the BSA negotiations and Karzai’s hardline public stances will almost certainly mean that a BSA will not be finalized by the US-imposed deadline of October 2013.
Afghan and Regional Calculations
While most experts say the zero option is an Administration bluff to wring concessions out of Karzai, many believe that further public discussion of the option will affect political, security, and economic calculations in Afghanistan and the region. In Afghanistan, ethnic and faction leaders, particular those in the north and west, have already begun recruiting and mobilizing militia forces in the event of a post-2014 political collapse. These faction leaders believe, as do US and Allied planners, that a total withdrawal of international forces would cause the Taliban to achieve major battlefield gains. The Taliban strength is in the ethnic Pashtun south and east, but the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara faction leaders of the north, west, and center want to ensure that the Taliban could not encroach in the areas where these ethnicities predominate.
Many experts are concerned that further public discussion of the zero option could cause governments in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood to adjust their policies to the detriment of Afghan stability. If Pakistan, India, Iran, the Central Asian states, and the Persian Gulf states perceive that all international forces will leave Afghanistan, these governments will begin to act on the expectation that the Karzai government (or his successor to be elected in April 2014 presidential elections) will not survive. According to this thinking, these governments would then hesitate to make agreements with the Afghan government or cooperate to stabilize it during the post-2014 time frame.
There is specific concern that Pakistan will block efforts by moderate Taliban figures to reach a reconciliation agreement with the Afghan government and, moreover, that it will refuse to deny Taliban fighters safe haven. There are also worries that India might rebuild ties to the ethnic militia factions of the north and west to weaken Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan.
To circumvent such regional recalculations, many experts strongly suggest that Washington should make it clear—through unequivocal public statements—that the zero option is not under serious consideration.
➣ The US-Afghan negotiations on a post-2014 US troop presence will not be completed by October 2013, creating substantial uncertainty among US allies that are carefully considering their own post-2014 troop contributions. This uncertainty is also having an impact on Afghan political factions and regional stakeholders. Until Washington makes it clear that the zero option will not be implemented, Afghan factions and Afghanistan’s neighbors will craft policies based on the expectation of a major civil conflict in the post-2014 period, thereby complicating efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
➣ By early to mid-2014—and probably around the time of Afghanistan’s presidential election in early April 2014—it will become clear that there will be a post-2014 US and Allied troop presence in Afghanistan of about 15,000 total forces. This will be assessed by Afghans and regional states as a sufficient number of forces to keep the Taliban insurgency from making significant gains. As perceptions take hold that the Afghan government will survive, negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban on a political settlement will begin in earnest, and Afghanistan’s neighbors will undertake policies to integrate Afghanistan into regional security and economic frameworks.
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