Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a comprehensive hearing devoted to assessing the post-2014 U.S. transition in Afghanistan. A central issue was the question of whether the Obama administration is genuinely considering a "zero option," as news reports suggested last week, that would withdraw all U.S. military forces from the country by the end of 2014. While many oppose this option, the hearing made clear that it might happen if the Afghan government fails to hold free and fair national elections next year.
The Obama administration has yet to announce how many U.S. troops it will maintain in Afghanistan after 2014, but senators and other witnesses worried that the administration's lengthy decision-making process is creating serious problems. In particular, this uncertainty reinforces the popularly credited "abandonment narrative," by which the West is eager to desert Afghans as it did in the 1990s after the Cold War. In addition to disappointing Washington's Afghan allies and emboldening its adversaries, uncertainty over the continued U.S. military presence also encourages third parties such as Pakistan to hedge against a complete withdrawal by maintaining support for the Taliban.
One major barrier to a continued U.S. troop presence is the need for a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would grant American soldiers in Afghanistan immunity from various local laws. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have made clear that they will not keep U.S. military forces in Afghanistan without a new SOFA. While government officials, members of parliament and other influential Afghans recognize the need for a new SOFA to secure continued U.S. military assistance, negotiations have proceeded slowly. Moreover, to protest the recent failed U.S.-backed efforts to open a Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suspended SOFA talks indefinitely.