| ||Zero Dark Afghanistan|
The Wall Street Journal
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Karzai's dysfunction meets Obama's detachment.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits the White House on Friday, and he was given an early welcome this week with a statement that the U.S. may withdraw all of its troops from the country in 2014. If both sides aren't careful, that's exactly what will happen and the result won't be pretty for anyone but the Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistan's Islamists.
The ever-truculent Mr. Karzai is, among other things, coming to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement beyond the scheduled handover to Afghans of total military control in 2014. Until recently, the U.S. has said it wants to maintain some military presence in the country past that date. But suddenly the White House is floating the "zero option" that if the terms aren't right, Mr. Karzai can go hang—which he might end up doing, from a lamppost.
This may be part of President Obama's negotiating strategy, and Speaker John Boehner knows how that goes. Mr. Karzai has played the role of ungrateful nationalist for several years, and he is still resisting adequate immunity safeguards for U.S. troops. His intention to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners is not encouraging. The U.S. threat to pack up and leave may be a slap to get Mr. Karzai to consider what life would be like on his own.
Then again, you never know with Mr. Obama. It's possible this is the start of a drama intended to get the U.S. out while blaming Mr. Karzai for failed negotiations. Mr. Boehner knows how that goes too.
That's what happened in Iraq in 2011, when the White House kept saying it wanted a permanent presence but made Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an offer he couldn't accept. U.S. commanders recommended a force of up to 18,000, but the White House whittled that down to so few troops—3,000—that they could barely defend themselves much less make a difference to Iraq's security.
Mr. Maliki concluded the feeble presence wasn't worth the criticism he'd take from domestic nationalists, and now the U.S. has only a few dozen troops riding in black SUVs in Baghdad. This may have been Mr. Obama's goal all along, letting him fulfill his 2008 promise to end the war and mollify his critics on the left who disliked his Afghan surge. The result is that the U.S. has little remaining influence in Iraq, while Iran's leverage grows.
The White House seems to be repeating the same pattern in Afghanistan. U.S. commanders recommended a range from 6,000 to 20,000 troops (from the current 66,000), with more risks the fewer the troops, but the White House asked for options with even fewer. The latest word is that many in the White House now prefer as few as 2,500 troops past 2014.
As in Iraq, that would barely be enough to protect their own perimeter, much less train Afghan forces and pursue counterterrorist operations. Special forces raids require intelligence and backup that would be harder to acquire or provide.
Drone strikes in the al Qaeda sanctuary along the Afghan-Pakistan border could continue, but from a greater distance and without key posts close to the border. The U.S. presence would largely be confined to bases in Kabul and Kandahar, which would themselves be vulnerable to rocket attack.
The question is whether Mr. Obama is trying to make an offer that Mr. Karzai will find isn't worth the political heat he will take at home for keeping any foreign troops. If Mr. Karzai rejects a U.S. presence, Mr. Obama could blame the Afghan leader for what happens after America leaves. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama could wash his hands of a now-unpopular intervention, further cut the Pentagon budget to fund ObamaCare, and continue his pursuit of America's global retrenchment.
A total U.S. withdrawal doesn't make a Taliban return inevitable, and much depends on the progress that Afghan forces make in the next two years. Afghan troops have slowly improved their ability to fight, and as they take on more responsibility they are now dying in greater numbers than are NATO forces. But they also lack the logistics, air power, intelligence and other resources that U.S. troops can provide.
The U.S. strategic interest is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming an al Qaeda sanctuary, while keeping terrorists under pressure along the Pakistan border. This interest will be compromised if the Taliban is able to retake huge swaths of the country because the U.S. leaves prematurely.
Mr. Karzai's willful sense of entitlement may lead him to make foolish choices that put his country's future at risk. But after so much American sacrifice, Afghanistan's fate is also Mr. Obama's responsibility. If Kabul falls to the Taliban, or the country descends into renewed civil war, it will also be an American defeat—and President Obama's.