For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

One official noted that both Obama and Rice appear only marginally interested as attention has shifted to Syria and a growing al-Qaeda presence in Africa.

“If you look at the threat matrix,” this official said, “Afghanistan isn’t blinking the brightest. Why invest more billions and more lives?”

This lack of interest on the American side is at the crux of the current impasse, although Hamid Karzai has contributed his share to the current woes with statements blasting the U.S. and the West in intemperate terms. But, according to press reports, Karzai actually agreed to grant U.S. troops immunity under Afghan laws–the issue that scuppered an agreement with Iraq.

Apparently, if the reporting is to be believed, the big issue at the moment is his demand that the U.S. conclude a mutual-defense treaty with Afghanistan similar to those with major non-NATO allies. The Obama administration disingenuously claims this would mandate U.S. troops crossing into Pakistan. More plausibly, this would simply demand a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s defense, within Afghanistan, which the administration doesn’t want to grant.

There is also disagreement over how much room for unilateral operations in Afghanistan U.S. Special Operations forces will retain in hunting down al-Qaeda and its ilk. Karzai wants the mission turned over to Afghan forces, which the U.S. is resisting, even though his demand could be finessed by putting Afghans in the lead with U.S. troops along as “advisers,” a practice becoming increasingly common today anyway.

It is possible these issues will be resolved by Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Kabul. But I am not terribly optimistic because I think significant elements of the administration, starting at the top, are looking for a way out of Afghanistan and they are using disputes with Karzai as an excuse. The president who once called Afghanistan the necessary war appears to be motivated now primarily by the necessity of disengagement, at least as he sees it.

The results for U.S. interests and for Afghanistan are likely to be dire, because if U.S. troops leave, so will our NATO allies. And the U.S. and its allies will be unlikely to continue pouring in the billions of dollars necessary to keep the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government functioning. That makes a collapse, of the kind that occurred after the Soviet withdrawal, much more likely–and with it a return of the Taliban and Haqqanis and their al-Qaeda allies.

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