How low can they go? After leaks suggesting that the White House is decreasing projected troop levels in Afghanistan post-2014 to as low as 3,000, now the deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes has suggested that the zero option is a very real possibility.
This might be just a bargaining ploy to put pressure on Hamid Karzai as negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement heat up, but it could also be where the White House ends up. That was certainly the outcome in Iraq. There, as in Afghanistan, the view of most experts and military officers was that we needed a substantial residual force but after negotiations hit a snag, President Obama pulled all the troops out. He may well do so again in Afghanistan—an option that Chuck Hagel and John Kerry would be more likely to support than their predecessors at Defense and State.
There would be little public pushback; even most Republicans are tired of the war and few are willing to get into a political brawl to keep troops in Afghanistan. This would be a political winner for Obama in the short term. It would not, however, be in our long-term national security interests.
It seems rather late in the day to be rehearsing all the reasons why we need to keep troops in Afghanistan, but those reasons are as valid today as they were in 2002: Our troop presence is an essential bulwark against the return to power of the Taliban which, recall, have never repudiated al-Qaeda and other trans-national terror groups. A victory for the Taliban would be a victory for al-Qaeda too and it would have parlous consequences outside Afghanistan. It would energize jihadists around the world and most particularly in Pakistan, the unstable but nuclear-armed state next door.
The Afghan security forces are more capable than they were a few years ago, but they cannot stave off such a disaster by themselves; they remain highly dependent on U.S. support and they will be so for years to come. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan not only allows us to buttress the Afghan forces but also to conduct our own counter-terrorist operations, such as the operation which killed Osama bin Laden.
All of that would be lost if the White House were to implement the “zero option” over the objections of the commanders on the ground. But it could very well happen. And however disastrous the zero option might turn out to be, it could actually be preferable to leaving a token force of, say, 3,000 troops which would be big enough to arouse nationalist resentment but too small to be militarily effective.