Is Obama Entertaining a Complete Withdrawal From Afghanistan?

John Glaser, January 08, 2013

Retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, now at the Center for a New American Security, writes at Foreign Policy on Hamid Karzai’s upcoming visit to Washington to discuss with the Obama administration a status of forces agreement for Afghanistan beyond 2014. He argues it’s possible a complete withdrawal is a viable option.

The top US military general in Afghanistan, John Allen, has recommended keeping 6,000-20,000 US troops in country after the vaunted and wildly misrepresented 2014 “withdrawal.” Anonymous administration officials told Reuters Obama is quietly considering slightly less troops to stay beyond 2014, with numbers like 3,000-9,000 floating about.

But Barno says the “zero option,” which ultimately was chosen for Iraq despite administration efforts to keep thousands of troops there in a new status of forces agreement, is sitting in the back of Obama’s mind as one possible option.

Karzai comes to this week’s discussions convinced that the United States desperately needs long-term military bases in Afghanistan. He sees an America without other viable options to maintain its regional influence, cajole Pakistan, threaten Iran, or launch raids against nearby terrorists. Because of this, Karzai thinks that he holds all the cards in the upcoming negotiations. He is absolutely convinced that the United States has no workable strategic choice but to station substantial U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

“But Karzai has it wrong,” Barno says, for at least five reasons: (1) pullout worked ok for Iraq; (2) budgetary pressure; (3) the war weariness of the American publish; (4) US capacity to handle Afghanistan remotely; and (5) a covert intelligence war may be better than keeping troops if we get backed into a corner on a SOFA.

I see Barno’s point, and I think his five reasons are fair, but I don’t buy it. He counters his own argument more than he supports it. He admits that, absent US troops Afghanistan would descend into civil war with a probable return of the Taliban, Washington’s ability to contain Pakistan and launch drone strikes in the tribal regions would be significantly undermined, etc. I don’t expect the Obama administration to risk these scenarios.

But there are more reasons the “zero option” isn’t going to happen this time around. Afghanistan is not Iraq. With Iraq, you had a more stable and independent government that was defiant of US encroachment. That was the driving force behind Maliki’s inability/refusal to produce an acceptable SOFA to the US. In Afghanistan, Karzai’s government is extremely weak and barely operational on its own – that is, without the support of thousands of US troops and billions in foreign aid. Yes, Karzai has demonstrated his own limited defiance of Washington, but I doubt it will hold this time. He needs Washington to survive.

Secondly, Iraq was Bush’s war. Obama followed through on the SOFA signed under Bush. The immediate political costs of a full withdrawal seemed to rest much less on Obama’s shoulders in that case. Afghanistan is different. That is Obama’s war; he decided to surge in 2009, he owns it. And he’ll therefore be more concerned with Afghanistan for the long term and less inclined to pull out.

At least, that is how I speculate the administration sees it. It’s still the case that so long as any foreign occupation exists in Afghanistan, and so long as any Kabul government is propped up from abroad, the insurgency will remain alive and well. There are a host of bad options in Afghanistan and the reality is that a complete withdrawal now is the least bad, whether Obama sees it that way or not.

Update: Al-Jazeera reports that “A senior White House official has said the US would consider leaving no American troops in Afghanistan after the end of combat in December 2014.”

Asked whether Obama would consider a scenario in which all US troops left and there was no residual force in Afghanistan, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser said: “That would be an option we would consider.”

“We wouldn’t rule out any option. We are not guided by the goal of a certain number of troops in the country. We are guided by the objective that the president has set,” Rhodes told reporters.

I still find this incredibly unlikely. The Washington phrase “not ruling out any options” is a complicated one, to say the least.

45 Responses to “Is Obama Entertaining a Complete Withdrawal From Afghanistan?”

  1. [...] Obama Mulling a Complete Afghan Withdrawal? [...]

  2. What blarney! The US was kicked out of Iraq and is being kicked out of Afghanistan. The US military cannot defeat car bombs and IED's. We lose because the populations know they have nothing to gain from giving in to us. They know what kind of governments we set up and they don't want them. They will keep setting bombs at the side of the road until we go away. Against such weapons our whole military apparatus is useless. These weapons make a soldier's job pointless and nervewracking, their tours of duty maddening.We haven't the tools to occupy another country. Even our own great successes, Germany and Japan, will soon ask us to leave.

  3. Yup – Well said . But will we learn ? Or will be repeat it the same mistakes ?

    Also ; all things considered shouldn't this be our motivator to talk to Iran as opposed to threaten them ?

  4. There is no alternative but total withdrawl. This is in the interst of Afghanistan and Pakistan as how many Afghans they will kill.
    Afghan history tells us they don,t accept foreigners if Obama wants to keep forces then I will advise him to send blody neo-cones to Afghanistan and Irak to fight, not the americans. They have destroyed America and world economy and kiled millions for lies on 9/11 as neo-cones themselves planned and excuted these 9/11.
    I don,t how many americans will be sacrificed for lies.

  5. The article has one serious error. The 2011 deadline of SOFA-IRAQ was not "chosen" (By us? That is laughable) but flung in the face of President Bush by the people of Iraq. They ended that war/occupation. The same is likely to happen in Afghanistan. In the end it is the people who decide on occupations. Even if there is a SOFA-AFGHANISTAN without a similar deadline, such pacts always include articles which allow each partner to withdraw unilaterally.
    Yet, "make no mistake" as one of our earlier Presidents was wont to say, the droning of Afghanistan will continue even after a complete withdrawal. After all, our government drones another country with which we are not officially at war namely Pakistan. The occupation of Afghanistan will continue "on the cheap" no matter what happens during the visit of Karzai.

  6. Total failure to do the simplest human thing: put yourself in the other guy's shoes. We keep imagining that they will regard supremely-weaponed huge American soldiers as 'protection', when no one can tell what they're doing there except bringing destruction. The main reaction: desire to have them go away.

  7. Bring home all the poor duped troops from all illegally occupied 'SOVERIGN' natiions NOW.

  8. Another US Made "Cut and Run" trillion dollar disaster! I imagine they will have to leave behind "contractors" to keep the heroin revenues to prop up the banking industry!

  9. just keep your eye on karzi, no way he will be in the country when the last us soldier leaves.

  10. Don’t conflate “complete withdrawl of combat troops” with complete lack of military presence. I may be wrong, but I recall reading that although the US pulled out all the troops, they then hired a ton of armed contractors. And I don’t think CIA etc count as combat troops either, so they may like to say there are no boots on the ground, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to still be firing guns and missiles at people.

  11. Ah ! The graveyard of vampires…I mean..Empires !!!

  12. A trillion dollar disaster for US people is a trillion dollar turnover for the US defense industry.

    They want and need permanent wars and loss of military equipment.

  13. Are there any indications who are getting the trillions of opium sales? Are there already any sources about banks?
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  14. Afghan war is not winnable.., if that was the case USSR red army would be in control of entire middle east.., after all winning Afghan war is part of that old idea from WWII.

    They very well know that they are not going to win even if they stayed in Afghanistan for another hundred years and that is because Afghan people have nothing to lose, they only got their proud and nationalism.., for US and EU in the other hand is more of an long term investment placing a non democratic government which would do as its told.., now after so many years they have come to understand the reality of the matter.., so they need new country to invade which would compensate their losses regarding natural resources, and that is Africa, and that is Iran and that is South Pacific. US and EU governments are cornered in Central Asia and Middle East so they need to get organized for new invasions hoping for the best.., which has been the main US and EU foreign policies problem.., they only have their "hope" left as American people been told so many time…, hope for the hope to become a hope. Wish you the best.., but if my wish is not coming trough don't blame me for it…

  15. [...] for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, with reports that they are giving serious consideration to a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, using the eventual pullout from Iraq as a [...]

  16. Are you saying that The Williams Law Center is not legitimate in doing loan audits?

  17. [...] Obama Mulling a Complete Afghan Withdrawal? [...]

  18. [...] troops to stay beyond 2014, with numbers like 3,000-9,000 floating about and some even claimed a complete withdrawal is being considered, although it is extremely [...]

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