The Uncertain Strategic Case for the Zero Option in Afghanistan

It is far too easy to concentrate on the tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and ignore the sheer lack of U.S. debate over the value of staying in Afghanistan.  The key question is whether there is a legitimate case for something approaching a zero option and a full withdrawal of U.S. forces and aid. If there is, it does not really matter whether Karzai signs the BSA or in fact if the US has a good excuse to leave. If there is not a legitimate case, one needs to be very careful about setting artificial deadlines and red lines.
The key problem in answering this question is that with little more than a year before the planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops, the Obama Administration has never provided any meaningful rational for staying Afghanistan or any plan for what happens after the end of 2014.

This already is presenting key problems in terms of lead times, and is the reason former commanders of USCENTCOM and ISAF sought such decisions by the end of 2012. We need to decide what our future role will be, what facilities we will need to keep, what levels of manpower we will need to deploy, what should and should not be withdrawn and closed. We need to get Afghans to agree to these U.S. plans and goals, and to conditions for a lasting U.S. role. We need to get firm agreements from the allies that we want to keep forces and aid efforts after 2014. We need to have plans for what will replace ISAF and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in attempts to coordinate military and civil aid efforts. 

We have no clear plans or leadership from the Obama Administration in any one of these critical areas. More than that, we have no decisions about the cost of such efforts, and estimates of what budget requests will be needed over any estimated period of years after 2014. There is some rhetoric but no realism. Worse, far too many in the Pentagon and State Department feel that the White House is little more than an endless random options generator. A constant stream of requests for more plans and data, but no clear decisions.

One thing is clear. The strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and much depends on the size, cost, and nature of the future U.S. effort – as well as the level of Afghan commitment to meeting the conditions that justify staying. There are well over a dozen critical issues and tasks the Administration has to address:

1.     Afghanistan is at least a secondary and probably a tertiary U.S. strategic interest, and not a top priority for major U.S. commitments in terms of spending and forces. The United States has far higher priorities in Asia, the Middle East, and in meeting domestic needs.

2.     Afghanistan is no longer a key center of international terrorism. Al Qaeda central is located in Pakistan. The most threatening Al Qaeda and other extremist movements for the United States, Europe, and our allies are in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Africa.

3.     We have no way to defeat the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other extremist movements that threaten the Afghan government and only pose a very limit threat to the United States. They have sanctuaries in Pakistan, and the United States and ISAF do not plan to drive them out of Afghanistan; only to help the Afghans create a layered defense of key population centers and lines of communication.

4.     Our presence in Afghanistan has not made Pakistan a strategic partner, but a reluctant nation that permits us to use it for transit in exchange for money. Pakistani public opinion now sees the United States as great a threat as India, and whose politics are increasingly hostile. We will have even less influence and leverage after 2014, and Pakistan will have even more reason to seek influence and control over Afghanistan.

5.     Our successes in using drones in both Afghanistan and Pakistan may well have reached the point of diminishing returns. Even if they have not, it is unclear that either country will allow United States to sustain them at levels that remain effective, and it is very clear that they are a major source of political tension. The same is true of any efforts to use Special Forces. 

6.     There seems to be no near term prospect we can alter Pakistani attitudes on these issues. It is unclear what strategic purpose staying in Afghanistan will serve the United States unless Afghanistan allows the United States to at minimum exercise counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan; conditions at least as critical to U.S. policymakers as any level of legal immunity for U.S. forces and other personnel.

7.     One rationale sometimes for staying is probably absurd: Are we are going to stay in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? If there are massive shifts forwards in extremism in Pakistan, what can the U.S. do about it? Can we really ever credibly conduct some kind of Bin Laden like raid to somehow seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Even if we can, how do we secure such weapons or withdraw them? These scenarios would probably make for a good action movie, but application in a real world setting under the current conditions are less than realistic.

8.     Strategic commitments depend heavily on risk assessments.  Afghanistan poses critical internal political risks. We have no way to predict the outcome of the coming election, whether there will be a competent leader and a real ally, and how effective and unified the Afghan political structure will be. We have no indication the new power structure will be less corrupt or better able to govern. We can’t even predict when an effective new structure of governance will come into place after the election – although many estimate this could take at least four months after the spring election in 2014 – even if enough Afghans accept the result to give it meaning.

9.     The concepts ISAF has developed for layered defense after all U.S. and allied combat forces except advisors and small number of enablers leave seem broadly credible but there is no clear structure for the cost of the necessary aid. Additionally, there is no clear plan for the role and number of U.S. and allied advisors, for creating new structure to replace ISAF and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), and no clear process aimed at creating conditions-based capabilities to help Afghan forces if things go drastically wrong.

10. Problems with corruption have not been addressed. Key problems that surface in Iraq, like who will advise the police and paramilitary forces after the U.S. combat role ends, have not been resolved.

11. More broadly, it is not clear that there is firm agreement that the United States will not provide Afghanistan with heavy conventional forces like fighters and armor of the kind Karzai and others demand. It is not clear that the Afghans accept the fact we will only aid them in dealing with their own internal threats, and not in confronting Pakistan.

12. The risks in terms of Afghan corruption and failed governance in the economic sector are far greater. It is all too unclear that Afghanistan will meet the conditions for continued aid it agreed it in Tokyo in 2012. It is unclear that most economic aid to date has had broad national benefits that offset the level of waste and the corrupting impact of flooding money into the country.

13. There are no clear estimates of what levels of future U.S. aid will be needed, and what role allies will play – just vague commitments in terms of total dollars. There has never been a credible overall Afghan or outside plan for developing the Afghan economy and allocating and managing aid. 
UNAMA – the UN agency theoretically in charge – has been a dismal failure and there is no picture of who in either the Afghan government or the international community will plan and manage these activities after the Afghan election and as most forward-based aid personnel leave in 2014.

14. There are no indications that the probably massive cuts in military spending and outside aid will cripple the agricultural and less developed part of the Afghan economy. However, there has been no credible risk analysis of how this will affect the Afghan power elite that is dependent on such spending, whether a major crisis or recession could take place in the more developed portions of the economy, and what if anything could be done from the outside.

15. There is no credible effort to measure the existing and probable brain drain and level of capital flight outside the country, or how the cuts in outside money will push Afghanistan back towards dependence on exporting increased amounts of narcotics.

16. Finally, it is not clear how a U.S. role in Afghanistan would affect the future U.S. role in central Asia and South Asia. Key questions for the United States to address at this time are; why should we maintain more than a diplomatic presence in much of the region? Why not leave the task of dealing with unrest and extremism in central Asia to Russia and China? Why can't the United States do the best job of winning the new Great Game by ceasing to play it?

17. Similarly, why go beyond diplomacy in South Asia? Do U.S. efforts to build an alliance with India really offer any prospect of doing more to counterbalance China than leaving India to act on its own?  Does post-2014 U.S. involvement in Pakistan really offer any clear advantages that offset the all too obvious problems that now exist?

It should be stressed that many of these concerns and caveats might disappear if the Obama Administration demonstrated it had effective plans, meaningful cost-benefit assessments, and credible estimates of the cost in money and people. What exists to date falls far short of even the standard of planning that led to the mess in the Affordable Care Act. At least there were public plans and some form of credible debate. The problem in assessing the Zero Option is that there are zero plans, zero real debate over the issues that matter, and therefore zero substantive credibility.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy