July 15, 2013 | Quote

Zero Option Talk Makes McKeon Fear Iraq Repeat

On Monday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was “giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year. “

Many commentators immediately labeled the story a bluff by the White House, which has become increasingly frustrated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Indeed the Times piece noted that the “zero option” had been considered “useful negotiating tool” until now.

On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) weighed in forcefully with a statement saying “senior Administration officials assured me that there is no 'zero option' scenario under consideration.” Such an option “would violate American commitments to the Afghan people,” according to the officials cited by McKeon.

“The Chairman is concerned that the White House may wittingly or unwittingly end up exercising the zero option in Afghanistan just as they did in Iraq. Replace Iraq with Afghanistan, Maliki with Karzai, and we are dangerously close to repeating history.”

It was almost universally expected that U.S. forces would remain in Iraq. Indeed, it was the Obama administration’s stated goal to reach a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the al-Maliki government to keep U.S. troops behind. But no deal materialized as the two sides reached an impasse, and all U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011. Since the American departure, violence has steadily increased and is now at levels not seen since the bloodiest days of the Iraq War in 2006-2007. Sectarian tensions are at fever pitch, and there are rumors of an impending civil war. 

According to a leading Afghanistan expert, McKeon’s fear is warranted.

“The White House is certainly willing to do a zero option in Afghanistan,” said Long War Journal editor Bill Roggio in an interview with RealClearDefense. “They stopped negotiating with Iraq with two-and-a-half months left on the [Status of Forces Agreement]. Given their past history, I see every reason to take them at their word.”

Indeed just like Iraq, U.S. negotiations with the Karzai government over the future of the U.S. troop presence have stalled. The recent decision to begin talks with the Taliban has been a major factor in the deterioration of the Afghan talks.

“As long as the U.S. insists upon talks with the Taliban without preconditions, the talks with Karzai are likely to remain stalled,” said Roggio.

But what of McKeon’s shooting down of the zero option? Might leaking the “zero option” help avoid another Iraq by pushing Karzai back to the negotiating table?

Roggio thinks not. “This is not the way to conduct foreign policy. Karzai has been slandered personally and professionally by politicians in Washington. At this stage in the game, he is unlikely to be moved by statements of this nature.”

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution believes likewise, writing in the Washington Post this morning that talk of a “zero option” is counterproductive. “U.S. officials may perceive the zero option as a smart negotiating tactic, but it actually reinforces the hedging behavior, especially in Pakistan, that allows the Taliban to maintain sanctuaries there.” Because Pakistan’s intelligence services and military see the Taliban as their backup plan should the U.S. prematurely exit, “most Pakistanis will see little reason to question their long-standing strategy as long as we keep talking about a zero option,” writes O’Hanlon.

Whether or not the zero option talk is helpful to negotiation, Roggio said he wouldn’t be surprised if Karzai already suspected the White House desired to leave no troops behind.

“Karzai watched what happened in Iraq, too.” 

Read the full article here.