Afghanistan has made more progress recently than most Americans realize. The Afghan army took over the lead combat role across the country this summer, and has been keeping the Taliban at bay. Last week, President Hamid Karzai confounded skeptics by signing a new electoral law that could set the stage for the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history next year.
The Obama Administration has brokered or facilitated much of that progress. But it has also made two major errors that threaten to undo the gains.
First was its mishandling of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha last month. Billed as the inauguration of an “Afghan-led” peace process, it backfired when Taliban members declared they represented the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — a claim that implied nonrecognition of the present government. An infuriated Mr. Karzai responded by breaking off talks with the United States about an agreement for U.S. trainers, advisers, and counterterrorism operatives to remain in the country after 2014.
The White House’s second error was to let it be known, after Mr. Karzai’s intemperate reaction, that a “zero option,” in which all U.S. military personnel would be withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, was back on the table. A full withdrawal would be at odds with the strategic partnership pact already signed by the two governments, and NATO’s agreement in June on a post-2014 “concept of operations” in the country — not to mention President Obama’s repeated public pledges that the United States would continue to stand behind Afghanistan.
It also would repeat the fateful U.S. mistake of abandoning the country after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. That opened the way to a civil war that brought the Taliban to power and created a haven for al-Qaeda.
A common assumption is that the White House is bluffing about the zero option to pressure Mr. Karzai. But this tactic is counterproductive. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the Wall Street Journal: “Anyone who reinforces this idea of December, 2014, as being … a cliff that the Afghan people are going to fall off is actually being unhelpful.”
The notion that the United States might withdraw encourages the Taliban to fight on and refuse further negotiations. It also motivates Pakistan to maintain its support for the insurgents as a hedge. It sows insecurity among Afghans, including in the U.S.-built army, during a critical time of transition.
The best way for Mr. Obama to manage Mr. Karzai, as a report coauthored by former commander Gen. John Allen argued, would be to state clearly what follow-on force the United States is prepared to provide for Afghanistan. Because most Afghans strongly favor such a force, that would put pressure on the Afghan president to reopen talks on an agreement.
As for the administration’s current gambit of hinting at a complete pullout, it’s hard to disagree with the assessment of former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker: “If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.”
— Washington Post