Obama and Afghanistan: the zero option

US threat to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014—the so called 'zero option'—is most probably a pressure tactic.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi | Published: July 12, 2013 11:20:34 am

The US threat to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014—the so called ‘zero option’—is most probably a pressure tactic in the increasingly difficult negotiations with President Hamid Karzai on the terms of future security cooperation between Washington and Kabul.

But ‘bargaining chips’ often turn into real negotiating positions when mutual trust between two sides begins to rapidly disappear. 

As the ground situation becomes murky in Afghanistan,the Taliban gains ground with the support of the Pakistan army,and the American public support for the war in Afghanistan evaporates,it is certainly possible that Washington and Kabul might part ways and not so amicably.

It is no secret that Karzai and the US President Barack Obama have not been able to build much mutual trust since the latter took charge of the White House in January 2009.  

Obama and his foreign policy advisers believed Karzai was part of the problem in Afghanistan. Karzai,in turn,was concerned at Obama’s ‘surge and exit’ policy in Afghanistan and Washington’s reluctance to confront the sources of regional instability across the Durand Line in Pakistan.

The Afghan President was angered by Washington’s recent attempts to cut a deal with the Taliban with the help of the Pakistan army. Washington’s denials that it is not negotiating with the Taliban behind Karzai’s back have not reassured Kabul.

Karzai has also been under considerable pressure to present himself as an Afghan nationalist and counter the campaign of the Taliban that he is a ‘mere puppet’ of the American occupation army.

As a result the negotiations between Washington and Kabul on the nature and terms of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 have been deadlocked for quite some time.  Obama had plans to leave a residual force of eight to ten thousand American troops in Afghanistan.

If Karzai might be over-estimating the U.S. interest in such a residual presence after 2014,Obama might be under-estimating the damage he has done to Kabul in his search for political reconciliation with the Taliban.

Attempts to bridge the differences between Karzai and Obama through a direct video conference have failed,according to a report in the ‘New York Times’ this week.

Military retreats are never pretty. Long-standing friends and partners tend to blame each other for things gone wrong and in the process increase the probability of failure despite the shared interests.

(C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express).

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