Despite unfolding disasters in Egypt and Syria and the damage to American security from the bizarre Edward Snowden episode, Afghanistan, which had begun to seem like last year's news, is grabbing headlines again. The Obama administration is undertaking yet another review of its options following the planned drawdown of U.S. military forces in 2014. Reports are that the administration, frustrated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is considering a "zero option" that would leave no American troops in Afghanistan.
But before wholesale disengagement is even officially on the table, opposition to it is flaring. Angry at the idea, House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon—a key Republican lawmaker—got administration officials to assure him that they were not contemplating a zero option. Ultimately, the administration’s policy review is likely to choose between slightly more or slightly less of the same.
Rumors and denials about a zero option might be interpreted as the normal political noise associated with a complex issue, but underneath them lies a common and debilitating problem for United States counterinsurgency: As an insurgency approaches its endgame, Washington is often hamstrung by inadequate leverage and thus is unable to compel and shape some sort of resolution. It's easy to understand how Washington gets into such a bind. When an American president is contemplating involvement in counterinsurgency, he must convince the public and Congress that the conflict is very important to the United States and that the beleaguered regime is the only thing standing in the way of victory by an evil and hostile insurgent movement. To make this case, presidents since John Kennedy have portrayed counterinsurgency as a variant of war. Even today this idea remains codified in U.S. military doctrine. Obviously, compromise and concession are unthinkable in a war between good and evil.