Preparations Underway for Zero Option in Afghanistan

As I posited yesterday, Pakistan appears to be putting together a US-style counterterrorism structure. This morning, we see even stronger hints that a full-blown military offensive against the Taliban may soon be launched by Pakistan. Although we have not seen any evidence that they have done so yet, I fully expect Pakistan to include both the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network among their targets in this operation. In fact, the Washington Post article mentions that Pakistan “would ‘not discriminate’ among the TTP, the Haqqani network and other militant groups in North Waziristan, including al-Qaeda”. In return for this offensive, look for Pakistan to get a massive amount of US financial and intelligence assistance. The US also appears to be making a renewed push against the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan and this report from Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart describes that effort while noting that the US wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis and any other groups that use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

These moves by Pakistan and the US make more sense when we see that the US has come to the realization that an ongoing troop presence in Afghanistan is increasingly unlikely. There was significant movement on that front yesterday, with President Obama speaking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone. From the White House readout of the call:

President Obama called President Karzai today to discuss preparations for Afghanistan’s coming elections, Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and the Bilateral Security Agreement.


With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year.  However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.

The United States continues to support a sovereign, stable, unified, and democratic Afghanistan, and will continue our partnership based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual accountability.  We remain fully supportive of our partners in the Afghan security forces, and we continue to proudly work side by side with the many Afghans who continue to work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their fellow citizens.

Although there is no clear deadline date, this phone call has the hallmarks of a “final warning” to Karzai. If the US doesn’t see movement from him on the BSA soon, look for the zero option of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan to take place. As noted in the readout, the lack of a signed BSA is causing trouble for NATO, as well. A NATO gathering (called a Defense Ministerial)  opened today, but with no BSA in place, Afghanistan planning can’t be done, prompting a very uncomfortable opening press conference for Secretary General Rasmussen.

Adam Goldman brings us another strong indicator that the US is moving toward a full withdrawal from Afghanistan:

The United States has quietly begun to whittle down the population of detainees it holds at a military prison in Afghanistan, but it is struggling over what to do with less than a dozen of these non-Afghan nationals who are regarded as particularly dangerous, U.S. officials said.

Those non-Afghan “permanent” detainees at Bagram have been hoarded by the US for years. Goldman notes that several were recently transferred to other countries, but the US is still considering “trial” in military commissions for a number of others. But there is a problem for many of these detainees:

The inmates’ home countries either do not want them or cannot provide security guarantees about their future behavior that satisfy the United States. And bringing some of them to the United States for trial in a military commission, an option being considered by the Obama administration, could run into political opposition or may be stymied by a lack of court-ready evidence.

Gosh, what a nuisance it is that there must actually be evidence before trying someone that the US military has “known” all along is guilty. But if the Afghans won’t hold them and we can’t put more people in Gitmo, just where will the military put their precious prisoners?

Olivier Knox brings us more details on how the zero option plans are coming together:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hammered home the message in a statement of his own released after the Obama/Karzai call, calling plans for a total pullout “a prudent step.”

“At President Obama’s direction, and with my strong support, the Department of Defense will move ahead with additional contingency planning to ensure adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” Hagel announced.

It is looking more and more likely to me that the US has decided that there will be no US presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year, and so the best bet is to get Pakistan to take on terrorists under a counterterrorism program that the US supports.

13 replies
  1. bloopie says:

    Yes, it would be a very limited mission after 2014: To deal with the “remnants of core Al Qaeda”. No worries about Afghan Taliban, or Haqqani network, or TTP. Just a few more bad guys to knock out, then we come home, right?

  2. joanneleon says:

    In other words, this is a “We’re not kidding” move, and a way of showing Karzai that he doesn’t have nearly as much leverage as he thought. My view of what Karzai is doing has changed over the past six months. At first I thought he was posturing, exercising his leverage. Now I tend to doubt that. I think he 1) doesn’t want to be the person who makes this decision/agreement and 2) he really does want the US out of Afghanistan. The question is, who is going to help Afghan officals keep things together? Do they have a Plan B? There are some obvious scenarios, but I’m not sure if I’ve read anything concrete about other partners, etc.

    Karzai has to be under an enormous amount of pressure at home.

  3. TarheelDem says:

    Karzai has been distancing himself from the US for the past several years. It increases his life expectancy not to be seen as a collaborator. His interest is in safe passage to exile somewhere and a new career.

    Of the 11 candidates for President which are the most likely to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US? Who do the DoD and CIA folks have their hopes pinned on?

    Absent that sort of a Hail Mary approval of the BSA, the US in a complete “we’re outta here” move would want a non-photogenic exit.

    The US sneaked out of Iraq in the dead of night and still left personnel behind under the SOFA. Leaving Afghanistan is going to be much more complicated, especially with Pakistan about to roil. Or is the whole turn in Pakistan solely to assure the US has a way to leave the region with some shred of diplomatic dignity?

    Hopefully the CIA station has sense enough to leave without needing helicopters and has made no promises to collaborators. Could otherwise make some messy YouTube footage. Echoes of 1975.

    All the tea leaves point to the US willingly or unwillingly being out of there by the end of the year. If that’s the case, you might see some news coverage just before the November elections. Just a hunch.

  4. joanneleon says:

    @TarheelDem: Good point about the pre-election news footage. Dems pretty desperately need positive achievements and neither they nor Obama have much to offer. What he can offer is something to play on the well known and emphatic “war weariness” sentiment (for a little while at least and who even knows what will be in the works between now and then in covert or semi-covert wars).

  5. Don Bacon says:

    I don’t believe any of this counter-terrorism malarkey.

    It is US policy to foment instability, and terrorists do the trick. In Iraq it was first the invasion and brutal occupation which created terrorists, then the Feb 2006 mosque bombing, which halted the US drawdown, led to the surge, and also the vast increase in US ground force numbers. In Libya it was siding with terrorists against US ally Gaddafi, transforming Libya from an advanced country to an ungovernable State. In Syria it is the US siding with Saudi Arabia to destabilize that country. In Pakistan it is AfPak, assassinations, Balochistan — the list goes on.

    The US strategy currently, as demonstrated before, is to make the situation (even) worse in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it currently is in order to guarantee the continued US military presence. A ” Hail Mary” doesn’t just happen, Doug Flutie made it happen. So with the US.

  6. TarheelDem says:

    @Don Bacon: Your opinion of the omnipotence of the US military might be just a little high. I don’t get the logic of destablizing a known nuclear power with a population approaching half of that of the United States and adjacent to one of the BRICS that is also a nuclear power. The Saudis are not about destabilizing Pakistan but about cultivating a nuclear ally more “reliable” than the United States. We are outside the scope of playbooks at the moment. There is a lot of floundering around. Howver, if the PtB decide to restart the US economy the US miraculously has the resources to create the appearance of omnipotence again. But I don’t see that happening in the short term.

    For the moment the Obama administration (if not the deep state) no doubt wants to leave Afghanistan behind, keep Pakistan from falling apart and run out the clock to 2017, passing it on to Hillary. What the compartments of the deep state are up to with the assumption of plausibly deniable authorization is not clear until it surfaces as events. And Balochistan for example looks like one of those chains of events directed out of Halliburton instead of the West Wing. But that’s just my take on it. Compartments are not guaranteed to be aligned with the overall policy; indeed some may be sabotaging it because of other commitments. But the hand of John Brennan looks to be in the Saudi’s recent attention to Pakistan indeed. But who does Brennan really work for?

  7. Don Bacon says:

    –I didn’t say anything about the omnipotence of the US military.
    –The logic of US destabilizing any country is multifold:
    –decrease opposing power
    –increase US relative power
    –aid the MIC thru military sales and expenditures

    It’s also called divide and conquer, and I gave several examples of the US doing it. Currently Ukraine is another, with neocon Victoria Nuland right in the middle of it. Russia is the target there.

    The US does not want to leave Afghanistan behind because it is the keystone country to the US Central Asia policy, including The New Silk Road strategy to increase US power in former Soviet satellites.

    The Obama Administration’s Priorities in South and Central Asia
    Robert O. Blake, Jr.
    Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
    Houston, TX, January 19, 2011
    The Silk Road once linked the South and Central Asian regions through an extensive trade network. Cultural and political linkages came later. Timur, whose legacy still holds strong in Uzbekistan, established a strong cultural link between these regions in the late 14th century when his armies conquered Multan and Delhi. He planted the seeds of the powerful Mughal dynasty that would later go on to produce cultural marvels like the Taj Mahal in India. . .etc.
    Administration Priorities
    Given this dynamic regional context, we have three primary objectives in the South and Central Asia region:
    · Support international efforts in Afghanistan; etc.

  8. Don Bacon says:

    The guy to watch in the Afghan presidential is Abdullah Abdullah, who called his movement the Coalition for Hope and Change — I kid you not — and also was a favorite of the Washington crowd. A couple years ago (not recently) he visited Washington and met with Senators Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, Jack Reed, Richard Burr also Congressman David Drier, Mike Rogers, Howard Berman, Gary Ackerman, Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic Minority Leader Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

    A-A lost to Karzai fiver years ago in a rigged election, and I suspect he’s being set up to win this one. So the whole Karzai chatter may be a cover for the US fave to take over and sign the BSA.

    Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was instrumental in bringing us Libya, was once a huge A-A supporter but has been silent. Lévy in March 2012: “Abdullah Abdullah…Remember this name. Recall it, if you have forgotten it. For Afghanistan and its friends, it is perhaps the very last card left to play.”

    Lévy has been occupied with Ukraine, making a rah-rah democracy speech in Maidan square, perhaps he’s been too busy for time in Kabul.

  9. TarheelDem says:

    When you say “the US doesn’t want to leave Afghanistan” who exactly are you speaking about? Who is involved in this foreign policy consensus? Because the US does not have the resources to continue mucking around in Afghanistan no matter what neo-con Robert Blake wanted in 2011. That is, as I said, unless the US economy is goosed back to life.

    Anyway, Blake is gone and Nisha Desai Biswal, who effectively has no CV but USAID (isn’t that interesting) is his replacement as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.

    Well, yes, Victoria Nuland-Kagan got her regime change. Who let that bunch back in the house and why? There’s an interesting investigative report right there. Exactly what I mean by “who are you speaking about” when you are saying the “the US wants this” or “the US intends this”.

    I agree that Abdullah Abdullah is the candidate to watch in the Afghanistan elections exactly because he is as much everybody’s favorite (among the folks you listed and the US mainstream media) as Hamid Karzai was. His major vulnerability is that he is not Pashtun. So the shenanigans around the election will be very interesting to watch. If the US deep state can see him elected by hook or crook, yes there rapidly will be a bilateral security agreement before the end of the year. I don’t think things will go that smoothly for the US.

    And in both Ukraine and Afghanistan, US “success” at forcing the neo-con policy will be Pyrrhic. At best, Abdullah Abdullah will be the Nguyen Van Thieu of Afghanistan. Unless he has some highly culturally transcendent political chops.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    I thought it was obvious that the US wants to stay in Afghanistan. You do know that the Seventh US Army is still in Germany, and the Eighth Army is in Korea. Never leave! (unless evicted) It certainly is US policy to maintain a presence in South/Central Asia.

    From Nisha Desai Biswal’s Senate Committee statement (pdf) in September:

    We are clear-eyed about the challenges of promoting greater regional cooperation, but we also see the potential and opportunities. It’s telling that since former Secretary Clinton first [sic] articulated the “New Silk Road” vision in 2011, the region has adopted its own vision of greater connectivity and integration. The Administration welcomes partnership with other key players in the greater region, like China, to achieve this important goal that, in the end, will bolster peace, stability, and prosperity for all the peoples of South and Central Asia.
    Kazakhstan, with its support for the Afghan Security Forces and training of Afghans in Kazakh universities as well as hosting the Istanbul process ministerial and the P5+1 talks, has demonstrated its importance as a leader in the region. In fact, Mr. Chairman, all five Central Asian states have provided vital support for our mission in Afghanistan, including through the Northern Distribution Network. That support will be all the more important in the months and years ahead.

  11. TarheelDem says:

    @Don Bacon: Well that’s a rather interesting statement.


    The Administration welcomes partnership with other key players in the greater region, like China, to achieve this important goal that, in the end, will bolster peace, stability, and prosperity for all the peoples of South and Central Asia.

    The US is open to some sort of relationship with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which already has the Central Asian countries involved in an ongoing institution (modeled on NATO.)

    Kazakhstan is the new strategic pivot for US Central Asian policy. And now the US turn toward Iran begins to make sense with respect to Central Asia. The US can leave Afghanistan. But its relationships with Kazakhstan, Iran, and Pakistan are the key strategic ones for its Central Asia policy.

    What is clear is that there are elements of the US national security establishment that very much want to stay in Afghanistan because its a nice cash cow in the federal budget. But all it offers is strategic position and mountains. US withdrawal will proceed through the Northern Distribution Network? And any operations post December 2014 will likely also proceed through the Northern Distribution Network. Pakistan’s role is to secure its border with Afghanistan.

    So the question is how rigidly oppositional NATO and the SCO will be. And that seems to be in flux and will depend on domestic politics on both sides.

    It seems that the US footprint in Central Asia is a fait accompli without putting in hardened basing. It no longer depends on a presence in Afghanistan.

    Yes, I am aware that the US still occupies Europe, South Korea, and Japan. I am also aware that those relationships are wearing very thin, that DoD is sensitive to that exposure, and that part of the strategic thinking so far is to tread lighter in allied countries but have highly mobile capabilities. Stub relationships like the Northern Distribution Network in this view become more important than expensive basing. Will this also allow the US to withdraw the Seventh Army from Germany and the Eighth Army from South Korea? That would be an interesting possibility, given the headaches continued basing creates there.

    the region has adopted its own vision of greater connectivity and integration

    That doesn’t sound like it is necessarily the same vision as Clinton’s New Silk Road. How loosely is the Obama administration going to hold the reins on its hegemony in this area? If they move from a neo-con strategy to a globalizing liberal strategy, there will be more flexibility than we have seen in a decade.

    But it still runs up against the fact that US resources are not unlimited.

  12. Don Bacon says:

    news report
    NATO’s chief said Wednesday that he’s hopeful a new president in Afghanistan will sign a security agreement allowing NATO to keep a long-term presence there.

    “I hope, I expect, a new president to sign. Because a lot is at stake,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a defense ministers meeting in Brussels Wednesday, according to Reuters.

    NATO wants to keep between 8,000-to-12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 as part of a training mission when the Afghan forces are given control of security.

    It’s in the bag — all leading contenders have stated they will sign. That’s if the money is right — and it will be. Karzai’s been on the CIA payroll and so will the next guy.

    Karzai has been a beneficial tool to the US. Karzai has cooperated with the Americans since the years of Afghan jihad [war] against the Soviets in the 1980s and that he has ties with the CIA. The information also confirms that Karzai, in coordination and cooperation with the CIA, carried out a large-scale covert operation inside Afghanistan with the objective of igniting a popular uprising against the Taleban regime. According to this information, Karzai was in fact the main Afghan leader the administration of President Bush relied on to work against the [Taleban] regime of Mola Mohammad Omar from the inside.

    Karzai has said he envisions himself being “very happily, a retired president.”But of course has domestic concerns and is mindful of what happened to his predecessor who was killed in a coup.

  13. Don Bacon says:


    The region can have its own vision if it coincides with the US vision of hegemony. That’s always the way it is. It can’t be any different if the US is to rule the world. The US pays lip service to cooperating and have your own vision — but it’s only PR. It’s what happens behind the screen, with the activities of State and the “pro-democracy” NGOs funded by State, USAID, etc. Also the Pentagon when they need more money and influence, since the Pentagon is much better funded than State.

    Yes, Kazakhstan. I have a large file on it. For many years State together with the local American Chamber of Commerce, allied with the US Chamber, has promoted US economic interests there using US taxpayer money funneled through USAID to promote US corporate financial interests. Training programs, etc.

    So the US is in the area to stay, that’s for sure. The area is rich in resources, and it’ll be fun to tickle Russia’s underbelly.

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