The Zero Option

President Obama’s announcement that he was prepared to completely leave Afghanistan by the end of the year forcibly returned public attention to what has become a forgotten conflict. What exactly happens now?


What may happen is the president may leave Afghanistan the way he found it, with no residual presence, essentially abandoning it to events. This is has been called the Zero Option.

The New York Times gives the impression that Obama is moving on without Karzai as if he had someplace to go. It conveys the idea that the Afghan president, by his stubbornness, has foolishly missed a voyage of marvels bound for enchanted climes. The NYT writes “Mr. Obama’s decision to look beyond Mr. Karzai, the official said, was driven by Mr. Karzai himself, who has told the administration that he believes his successor should sign the agreement because the future government will have to live with its consequences.”

But Anthony Cordesman, in an article written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Dec 2013 paints the picture of a campaign at a dead end. “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.”

In other words, is there any material difference between a Zero Option and just pulling up stakes and leaving? Is there even any point to staying? Cordesman enumerates some of the issues on which the answer to the question depends.


There are well over a dozen critical issues and tasks the Administration has to address:

Afghanistan is at least a secondary and probably a tertiary U.S. strategic interest … The United States has far higher priorities in Asia, the Middle East, and in meeting domestic needs.

Afghanistan is no longer a key center of international terrorism. Al Qaeda central is located in Pakistan. …

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.  …

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. …

Our successes in using drones in both Afghanistan and Pakistan may well have reached the point of diminishing returns. …

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? …

The risks in terms of Afghan corruption and failed governance in the economic sector are far greater.  …

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?


How does a Zero Option solve any of these problems? And for that matter how does staying in the Afghanistan solve any of these problems either?

Incredibly, up to the time of the publication of Cordesman’s article the Obama administration had apparently not given much of an indication that it was even thinking about these questions.  Cordesman wrote of the lack of guidance in any of these respects.

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.

Now that Obama has announced he “moving on” without Karzai it may be pertinent to ask: “going where?”. One way to remember how Obama got to this crossroads is to recall his own plans, given at a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, Arizona in August, 2009.  There Obama laid out the strategic thinking for what he called the “war of necessity”.

as we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments. And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy. We will begin removing our combat brigades from Iraq later this year. We will remove all our combat brigades by the end of next August. And we will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And for America, the Iraq war will end.

By moving forward in Iraq, we’re able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why I announced a new, comprehensive strategy in March — a strategy that recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base from the remote, tribal areas — to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan. This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war — that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance. And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies…

The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a — this is fundamental to the defense of our people.


It is shocking to learn that Afghanistan is actually a “tertiary strategic interest”, that “the United States has far higher priorities in Asia, the Middle East” — and that in any case al-Qaeda have moved to Pakistan amid nuclear weapons which cannot ultimately be reliably secured. It is disquieting to be told that the “war of necessity” can be essentially met by a Zero Option.

It would be as if you were told that a car you’d bought at such a high price can be abandoned by the roadside because you’re better off walking.

If it was such a dead end, maybe a much lighter footprint in Afghanistan should have been more suited to the situation. But the contrast between the Afghanistan Obama described in prospect and the Afghanistan he is leaving in retrospect is like the difference between two unrelated planets.  There is no apparent similarity between the objective outlined out in Phoenix in 2009 and the situation he intends to leave now. The former Afghanistan was depicted as a place of vital importance and dazzling strategic prospects. The latter Afghanistan is no better than a beater best left behind on the road for whoever wants to come along and tow it away, or as is more likely, set it afire. Maybe it was always a beater in the first place sold to the electorate as a limousine by a poor strategist but a world class used car salesman.

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