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Editorial: Obama’s Zero Option; Delivering a Message to Karzai

In November 1963, when South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was going off the reservation and alienating his U.S. patrons, a group of South Vietnamese generals helpfully staged a coup and assassinated him.

Fast-forward a half-century to Afghanistan, where members of President Barack Obama’s administration can (thankfully) only splutter, sotto voce, to The New York Times that frustrations with President Hamid Karzai’s government are driving the United States to consider speeding up the complete withdrawal of troops — a so-called zero option.

Let’s face it: A pullout of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is undesirable. Current plans to keep 8,000 to 12,000 mostly U.S. troops in Afghanistan to train and support Afghan troops, and an unspecified number in a counterterrorist role, will make it easier to advance the one abiding U.S. interest: to prevent the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies. And any discussion of a withdrawal of U.S. forces raises serious questions about the continuation of U.S. civilian economic assistance.

Obama’s threat, however, also provides an opportunity to inject some much-needed realism into discussions of Afghanistan’s future. Consider the status quo: Next fiscal year, the U.S. and its allies will provide more than $10 billion in aid to Afghanistan, including $7.7 billion for the Afghan National Security Forces. Afghanistan won’t be able to support this planned force of 352,000 on its own for years, if not decades — its total government revenue in 2011 was less than $2 billion. And that’s not even considering the other needs facing one of the world’s least-developed nations.

The best way to reduce the crippling long-term burden of an outsize military on Afghanistan is to encourage a political settlement between the Afghan government and its enemies. Yet U.S. efforts to do that by reaching out to the Taliban are what led to the current, and particularly intense, impasse in U.S.-Afghan relations. Fearing that the U.S. was working to conclude a separate peace, Karzai repudiated its overtures to the Taliban and ended talks on a deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government under Karzai is sinking deeper into a morass of corruption and waste. A United Nations report released in February noted that Afghan citizens had paid $3.9 billion in bribes in 2012, and that the frequency and cost of bribes had both increased since 2009. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has identified myriad ways in which the Afghan government is misappropriating or exploiting U.S. assistance — for instance, almost $1 billion in penalties and taxes on aid contractors. Is this really the kind of government to which the U.S. wants, or can afford, to provide billions of dollars in support?

Not over the long term, certainly. In fact, we hope that the Obama administration is serious about its post-2014 withdrawal threat and that, as Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken has said in another context, “superpowers don’t bluff.” Karzai needs to know that the U.S. is unwilling to keep writing blank checks to Afghanistan at the expense of its vital strategic interests elsewhere. In this case, the administration may have to show that the U.S. is willing to abandon the village in order to save it.

Bloomberg News