U.S. Considering "Zero Troops" for Afghanistan?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 9 2013 10:23 AM

Is U.S. Playing Expectations Game By Floating Idea of Zero Troops for Afghanistan?

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"The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of 'X' number of troops in Afghanistan," a White House official said.

Photo by SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration says it is considering leaving no troops in Afghanistan after December 2014. But is it really? Or is it just decreasing expectations and using the threat as a pressure tactic ahead of President Obama’s meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Friday? One thing does seem clear: The number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends is likely to be much lower than initially envisioned. Right now the money is on a range from 2,500 to 6,000, according to a source cited by the Washington Post.

Publicly, the Obama administration says zero troops is also a possibility. When asked in a conference call with reporters whether the possibility of no troops was on the table, Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said, “That would be an option we would consider,” reports the Associated Press. Yet it seems unlikely. Analysts point out “it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence,” notes the New York Times. That suggests it’s a negotiating tactic—although not just with Afghanistan, but also the Pentagon. Senior military officials have warned that Afghanistan could collapse without the proper amount of military support.

In addition to raw troop numbers, Karzai and Obama are also set to discuss a number of thorny issues, including immunity from prosecution under local law for any troops that remain beyond 2014. Before he heads to the White House, Karzai should realize that the Obama administration isn’t bluffing when it says it is considering all options for Afghan troop numbers, writes David Barno in Foreign Policy. Among other reasons for this stance, Washington is currently under pressure to spend as little as possible abroad amid a debt crisis and the administration can point to Iraq, noting it hasn’t exactly descended into chaos since the United States withdrew its troops.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.