Strategic Horizons: For U.S. in Afghanistan, Zero Option Not So Bad After All

Hamid Karzai is playing a dangerous game with the security of both Afghanistan and the United States. With NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan ending soon, the Afghan president negotiated a bilateral security agreement with Washington to leave a small U.S. counterterrorism and advisory force in his country. But after convening a national assembly of elders known as the Loya Jirga and gaining their endorsement, Karzai announced that he would not sign the agreement, leaving that to the winner of April’s presidential election. When U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice explained to Karzai that the United States needs the agreement in place now to plan for the continued involvement, he simply expanded his demands.

Despite its frustration, the Obama administration told the U.S. military to not plan for what is called the “zero option,” which would leave no U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. But if Karzai sticks with his current course, the United States has few other viable options.

At one level, Karzai’s obstructionism is puzzling. Afghanistan cannot pay its army and police without the $4 billion a year it receives in U.S. assistance. Afghan security forces continue to rely on the United States for intelligence and transportation. Why, then, would Karzai give this lifeline away? One theory is that he knows the Americans will eventually lose interest in Afghanistan and believes he is in a stronger position now to cut a deal with the Taliban than he will be later. Another theory is that Karzai is convinced that the United States needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the United States, thus giving him the upper hand to squeeze more concessions out of the Obama administration.

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