The United States' Zero Option in Afghanistan is Not Really an Option At All

The United States is steadily drawing down its troop numbers in Afghanistan, and looking to bring its first major military operation of the new millennium to a close. There are currently 63,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, a number that's expected to almost halve by February of next year. However, in the wake of difficulties in negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the United States has announced that it is considering withdrawing all military forces from the country by the end of 2014. Widely referred to as the 'zero option,' such a plan is neither feasible nor prudent. It is, however, a prime example of the outlandish rhetoric between the leaders of the United States and Afghanistan.

The United States will not enact the zero option for one reason: to do so would reverse all of the efforts of the past decade. The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are unable to operate effectively without external support. Though Afghan forces have taken the lead with regard to combat operations, including those in the dangerous Sangin region of southeastern Afghanistan, they are poorly equipped and trained compared to their NATO counterparts, and suffer greater casualties. Afghan troops remain dependent on NATO forces for intelligence, close air support, and casualty evacuations. Of these, the latter is the most significant. The inability to rapidly extricate wounded soldiers from a combat zone results in avoidable casualties and shocks to morale. The Afghan National Army is also dependent on external financial support; the United States has already pledged $54 billion in aid, with $1 billion allocated for ammunition, $878 million for weaponry, and $5.6 billion for military vehicles. Approximately half of the Afghan government's annual budget, about $8 billion, is derived from foreign aid.

Given the Afghan military's inability to handle the situation on its own, the zero option is a bluff by the United States that is intended to bring Afghan President Hamid Karzai back to the table in peace talks with the Taliban. It's equivalent to Karzai's talk about turning to China or Russia for arms supplies or allying with the Taliban. Fully removing U.S. forces would result in the withdrawal of Italian and German troops currently committed to the effort, bolster insurgents' efforts, and diminish interest in reconciliation talks. The situation in Afghanistan would be similar to that of the 1990s, with an internal conflict fueled by neighboring countries leaving the state a breeding ground for insurgents and Al-Qaeda.

Despite the rhetoric, the United States will be leaving a force to police Afghanistan, though the size of such a force remains to be seen; estimates range from as low as 2,500 troops to as high as 30,000. (In addition, the United Kingdom intends to maintain a force in Afghanistan until 2020.) Their presence will bolster the country's military forces and maintain the push for a political resolution between the Afghan government, insurgents, and regional powers. Meanwhile, we can expect a continuation of the status quo: American troops doing integral work on the ground, as the United States and Afghanistan make further outlandish claims as part of political negotiations