For months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has attempted to gain leverage over the United States by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement that would keep American troops in Afghanistan past next summer. Now, DOD officials are attempting to push Karzai into a corner by forcing an endgame, threatening to pull out completely unless the Afghan president agrees to a force of 10,000 U.S. troops to protect U.S. interests there.
Karzai has been pushing back against the Americans and the security agreement for months. DOD officials wanted to have it completed by the end of 2013. However, Karzai has refused to sign the deal - despite its approval by an Afghan council of elders - and has continued to attempt to win concessions from the White House. It is widely believed that Karzai intends to push the agreement off until the Afghan presidential elections in April.
Prior to this week, the Pentagon had threatened the so-called zero option as a last resort. In December, DOD chief Chuck Hagel said there is a “very real possibility” the zero option would be employed.
“If we don't have a bilateral security agreement, which I've noted, that means we can't protect our forces that would be here after 2014, no international partners will come, Afghanistan essentially will be alone. But we have no other options,” Hagel said in an interview with CBS.
Despite the threat, Karzai continued to posture, demanding more concessions from the Americans. According to Austin Long, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University, DOD’s decision to offer an all or nothing agreement is likely the last, best offer Karzai is going to get.
“The only debate inside the administration now is whether there’s something between zero and 10,000 troops. DOD is really starting to dig in its heels on 10k,” he said. “I don’t really see the Pentagon being ok with a lower number [of troops], and I don’t see the president, who is as frustrated as anyone, taking the effort to override intelligence and defense advice.
Rock and a hard place
Now, Karzai is forced to choose between accepting the terms of the American deal - meaning the United States would be a factor in Afghan politics for years to come - or allowing the American troops to leave. The latter option could have serious consequences.
First, no U.S. troops means no U.S money, and without U.S. money, the Afghan government would fall apart. Second, the absence of the American military means Afghan security forces, which are notoriously incompetent, would not benefit from training and equipment from DOD. According to Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Karzai has only himself to blame for this predicament. She said that he’s reading the intentions of the White House incorrectly.
“Karzai is overplaying his hand. He believes the U.S. is desperate to leave troops…but I think he’s miscalculating. There are plenty of officials in the white House who would wipe their hands clean and leave Afghanistan,” she said.
This theory is supported by Robert Gates’ recently published memoir. In it, Gates said that President Obama was never truly invested in the Afghan war.
“The military is trying to get the White House to commit to a decent number of troops. Unfortunately the White House doesn’t seem to deal with Afghanistan in a strategic way. It’s more interested in wiping its hands clean and rushing for the exit.”
According to Long, Karzai has one other option: He could refuse to sign the deal, claim the Afghan constitution that the Americans helped to draft was no longer binding, delay presidential elections and elect a new government. But with American money on the line, as well as the violence and chaos a new constitution would likely bring, a decision like this would be difficult for Karzai to make.
Instead, Long said, the security agreement is likely the last act of Karzai’s decade-plus as president of Afghanistan.
“This probably is going to be his last big action,” he said.
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