Karzai’s recalcitrance brings U.S. closer to ‘zero option’
The uncertainty over the long-term security deal — which President Hamid Karzai has threatened not to sign by the end of the year, as the United States has demanded — has the potential to be particularly damaging on the eve of Afghanistan’s presidential election, scheduled to take place next spring, U.S. officials say.
“If it doesn’t happen, if this anxiety grows, you project into the upcoming electoral period a degree of instability caused by growing alarm at Afghanistan returning to the 1990s,” said James F. Dobbins, the State Department’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It’s every man for himself, where losers in the election don’t just go into the opposition but get killed or go into exile. It’s winner takes all.”
Tensions between Kabul and Washington intensified Friday when the U.S.-led military coalition acknowledged it had launched airstrikes the day before that killed a child and injured two women in southern Afghanistan. Karzai angrily billed the strike as further proof that the United States has little regard for the lives of Afghan civilians.
U.S. officials signaled last week they were reasonably optimistic that Karzai would soon relent and sign the bilateral security agreement, which sets the rules for an enduring U.S. military presence after the U.N. mandate that governs its role expires in December 2014. But after Thursday’s civilian casualties, Afghan officials said he was even more reluctant to sign the document promptly.
Officials at the Pentagon, who have come to see the public warnings of a zero option as counterproductive, said last week that the White House has not asked the Defense Department to draw up plans for a full withdrawal. In a statement, the Pentagon said in response to questions that the endorsement of a follow-on force by a gathering of tribal elders that Karzai convened in late November “indicates overwhelming support from the people of Afghanistan to continue the partnership that has brought us this far.”
U.S. military planners have been operating under the assumption that they would retain a force of between 8,000 and 12,000 U.S. and allied troops at bases in the capital and in the four corners of the country. Key among those would be U.S.-led hubs in the south and east. That presence would allow U.S. intelligence personnel and Special Operations forces to remain within easy striking distance of insurgent groups in the tribal area that straddles the border with Pakistan.