When Hamid Karzai visited the White House in early January to discuss all things Afghanistan, a peculiar piece of disinformation awaited him at the doors of America's capital. Karzai had arrived to sort out the details of many issues, from prisoner treatment to NATO training and air strikes, but most Americans only concern themselves with one topic in Afghanistan: when all U.S. soldiers are coming home for good. Thus the White House exploited this singular concern and deployed its communications director to leak the unrealistic possibility of a "zero option" during Karzai's visit.
Barring a veto from Afghanistan's parliament or Karzai himself (or his potential replacement after 2014's election), the only zero in this plan is the zero possibility of implementation.
That the Obama administration desires a post-2014 military presence (U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta uses the phrase "enduring presence") in Afghanistan is no secret. Having watched Iraq regress into political deadlock and asymmetric warfare following the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, the White House and Pentagon presumably realize that the scope of Afghanistan's challenges exceed its sister war and will not bow easily. They will push Karzai or his replacement to the limit of their political influence. Assuming they comply, the only certainty of a post-2014 force is a number higher than zero.
The mystery over President Barack Obama's final decision is fueling a repetitive cycle of media speculation, with no credible source venturing outside the 3,000-15,000 range. The latest estimate has emerged as NATO ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the war's options: between 8,000 and 12,000 NATO troops. This reasonable estimate was immediately struck down by the Pentagon as hearsay, suggesting that a force of similar proportions may be anticipated. Given the possibility of covert forces, though, the American and Afghan publics are unlikely to receive the full truth.
"First of all, that report is not correct..." Panetta told a press conference on Friday. "I don't want to go into particular numbers, because, frankly, we want - we want to be able to have the flexibility to look at a range of options that we ought to have for our enduring presence. But I want to make very clear that the range of options we were discussing was with regards to the NATO force."
Pentagon spokesman George Little added, "A range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops was discussed as the possible size of the overall NATO mission, not the U.S. contribution."
A "range of options," amongst other advantages on the battlefield, helps keep the Pentagon in control of policy rather than locked into a set exit. The DOD has privately and publicly resisted the White House's troop caps and deadlines, and the loss of a residual force would erode the Pentagon's grip on Afghanistan (as in Iraq). Whatever the relationship with NATO, whose participation is mostly due to appearances and politicking, Washington is certain to provide more troops than any other country.
The size of this force also nullifies any potential agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, at least in theory. Rumors from within the insurgency's leadership have claimed that the Taliban's shura may be willing to accept a U.S. presence after 2014, but American troops will only stay to kill Taliban and train Afghan forces to kill Taliban. This policy will be sold as "counter-terrorism operations" against al-Qaeda "and its affiliates," largely meaning the Taliban itself and the elusive Haqqani network that serves as one branch of the movement. U.S. commanders were unable to conduct a planned operation in eastern Afghanistan and resorted to drone operations as a patch - they have yet to give up completely on a ground operation.
For this reason, a more plausible scenario will operate along Mullah Omar's lines and not accept the presence one U.S. soldier after 2014. Ongoing hostilities could then break down a political deal between Kabul and Islamabad, prolonging the war indefinitely.
U.S. forces plan to stay until 2020 and possibly beyond.
Lacking air power from NATO, how long will the fight continue between ANA troops, their U.S. trainers and the Taliban? Washington seems to expect a shorter time-line, and all U.S. officials shy away from the slightest negativity in Afghanistan (but not before cautioning against hard times ahead). Panetta told reporters that "expectations" set at last year's Chicago meetings were "truly exceeded": "The ANSF are now in the lead for nearly 90 percent of combat operations. And they are on track to step into the lead for all of these operations by this spring."
"Afghanization" offers the only hope for Washington's controlled withdrawal and has been highlighted over all other aspects of U.S. policy. To what degree desertion takes hold after 2014, and how often U.S. forces need to reinforce their Afghan counterparts, remains to be seen.
The Obama administration intends to leave 52,500 troops in the country until November, hoping to inflict more damage on the Taliban ahead of a political resolution. The insurgency has already survived the full brunt of Obama's surge and will not be significantly impacted by another summer of losses; while the group's foot soldiers may see a time of rest ahead, they are equally unlikely to surrender at this time. One final season (the last 34,000 troops will begin to withdraw after February 2014) may follow to keep the Taliban off-balance ahead of December 2014.
Yet two summers of fighting will simply reinforce Afghanistan's stalemate and leave a bad taste in both parties' mouths. Abruptly shutting off the conflict after more bloodshed is impossible. Considering the war's present conditions and future outlook, the U.S. and its NATO allies are preparing a recipe for ongoing low-intensity conflict that will stretch far past 2014 - when Obama will be tempted to replicate his policy in Iraq and declare an false end to the conflict. This lack of attention is feared by Afghans across the country, as evidenced by a question from Tolo TV Afghanistan.
"Sir, most of the Afghans believe that the U.S. will abandon Afghanistan again when the combat mission finishes in Afghanistan. What type of guarantee you can give them, sir? Because on one hand, Taliban still pose a serious threat to the Afghan government, and the peace process is also not going well."
"I want to make clear," Panetta answers, "that the United States and ISAF, the NATO -- the NATO countries that are involved in the ISAF effort, all of us are committed to supporting Afghanistan, not just now, but in the future. And that commitment is unwavering."
How these words translate into confidence amongst Afghans and Americans alike is much less certain.