The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Obama Considers Abandoning Afghanistan

Karzai

It’s the most open secret in Washington that America’s Afghanistan policy is in deep disarray. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quick to try to derail the most recent attempt between the US and the Taliban to negotiate an end to the Afghan war; Karzai fumed that the effort was ”in reality an attempt to cut him out and make an American deal with the Taliban.” In response, presumably, President Obama announced today that he was considering a “zero option” for Afghanistan—leaving no troops behind to help the Karzai regime and its allies fend off a resurgent Taliban and stay in power after 2014.

That’s a dumb idea, says Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst. Why? Because doing so will convince the Taliban, just like in 2009 when Obama simultaneously announced a troop surge and withdrawal date, to wait us out. The more patient elements in the Taliban see that if they can only hang on until 2014, when most or all US troops will have departed, the only thing standing between them and the fragile government in Kabul would be the notoriously corrupt, questionably loyal, and usually incompetent Afghan army and police.

Is President Obama announcing that he is pondering abandoning Afghanistan to bring Karzai to heel? That in itself is a bad idea; American presidents shouldn’t be letting personal relationships get in the way of important strategic decisions. In any case, Karzai will be gone in 2014: he can’t run for president again after this term is up.

President Obama seems to be once again falling between two stools. Bringing the Taliban to the bargaining table will be impossible if its leaders know they can wait the Americans out. Getting Karzai to take responsibility for his country’s future will be impossible if he thinks America will protect him forever. President Obama wants the Taliban to negotiate as if he might otherwise stay forever, and he wants Karzai to reform as if the Americans were leaving tomorrow.

It won’t work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s hard to see where the President takes it from here.

Working towards a political approach that brings an end to America’s Afghan commitment on reasonable terms is the right goal. Telegraphing our eagerness to leave has probably put that goal, never an easy one, out of reach. Hard choices lie ahead, and it seems clear that if the President is forced to choose between getting out in a bad way or staying put for the long haul, he will leave. If so, it will be difficult to explain what was gained by the surge or by five years of war under this President.

[Hamid Karzai image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Published on July 10, 2013 8:20 am
  • Jim__L

    Wouldn’t the sensible thing for us be to wait out Karzai, if he’s leaving in 2014, and support reformist candidates to replace him in the next election?

    • Andrew Allison

      Why spill one more drop of blood or spend one more dollar on this catastrophe? It was a mistake to get involved in the first place, and an even bigger one for Obama not to rectify it immediately upon assuming office.

      • Jim__L

        There is a good deal of value to making our threats of force credible — we have to use less force, that way.

        • Andrew Allison

          Agreed. But it’s a different subject to discussing what to do about the ineffectual ventures in which we are currently engaged.

  • rheddles

    Wouldn’t the sensible thing be to withdraw everybody ASAP? We should tell them did our best but they weren’t up to the job. If we come back, we won’t be nice next time.

    Afghanistan has no value or interest for the American people. It is likely to remain in the seventh century for the next fourteen. I would not want to be the one writing the letter to a mother explaining why her son died for no reason.

    • f1b0nacc1

      While I am deeply sad to agree with you here, I must do so. There are no good guys here, and there is nothing that we are going to accomplish that is worth a single scratch on a single American soldier.
      A modest suggestion: when we leave, lets leave our small arms (and a generous supply of ammo) in the hands of the women of Afghanistan. Should be fun to watch the results…

      • rheddles

        Good idea. Lots of ammo.

  • Bob_from_Ohio

    “If so, it will be difficult to explain what was gained by the surge or by five years of war under this President.”

    Not difficult at all, nothing was gained. That was apparent 4 years ago.

    Leaving a small force is useless anyways.
    Better to bomb the crap out of Kabul the day the Taliban takes it, as a warning.

    • rheddles

      It’s difficult to explain what was gained by 6 years of war under Bush as well. After we threw out the Taliban, screwed the pooch at Tora Bora, there was little left for us to do there. That’s when we should have left instead of going into nation building mode. Nation building is a chimera.