Doha Dialogue, Obama’s Zero Option and the Afghan Future: Advantage Taliban

25 Jul, 2013    ·   4053

D. Suba Chandran deconstructs Obama's Zero Option on the number of American troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014

Obama has floated another Zero Option (remember the earlier Prague speech on global nuclear disarmament that won him the Nobel?), this time on the number of American troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. This statement, whether bluff or threat, follows Karzai’s angry remarks and Afghanistan’s official protest against the dialogue with the Taliban in Qatar earlier, which witnessed the Doha dialogue collapse.

Clearly both the expressions of the two Presidents are linked. Why was Karzai upset and angry with the Doha dialogue with the Taliban, when his government has already initiated a parallel process through a High Peace Council in Afghanistan? And the follow up statement by Obama on zero option in Afghanistan – is it a policy formulation, or a bluff, or worse a threat directed at Karzai?

Remember the Hollywood blockbuster – Clash of Titans and its sequel, the Wrath of Titans on the Greek mythology involving Perseus, Zeus, Hades and Ares?  It appears, Obama and Karzai are fighting their battles, without realizing that there is larger good that needs to be nurtured and safe guarded. And that can be done only by dialogue and better understanding of each other’s situation, sensitivities and future projections, and not by threatening each other and fighting in open.

Unless the mighty Zeus and Hades realise their past mistakes and come together, Kronos can never be stopped. We the little Perseuses, are powerless (unlike the mythical one) and cannot afford to see our mighty Gods fight amongst themselves in our names, and in the process fail us for generations. Remember, the Kronos is getting powerful, and has the full support of the Ares!

Back to the contemporary power politics in Afghanistan from the Hollywood/Greek myth, what is the Zero option that the President Obama is talking about, and what are his reasons today?

Though “Zero Option” was in the public debate especially within the American think tank circles during the recent past, it was never formally enunciated by the American leadership – either as an option, or as a strategy. The “Zero Option” aims at removing all the American troops stationed in the US after 2014. As has been referred elsewhere, Obama as the Commander in Chief of the mighty American military has the right to increase or cut down his troops. In theory.

But the general understanding has always been that the US would do the following as a part of its larger exit strategy before December 2014. It is widely quoted that the level American troops in Afghanistan today is over 60,000 to be gradually reduced to 34,000 by February 2014, and then further lowered by the end of December. It was expected, that this strategy will not result in the complete withdrawal of American troops at the ground level from Afghanistan, and that there will be a “residue American force” even after December 2014.

What is this residue American force for, as has been originally advocated? It was to serve three purposes – first and foremost, to ensure that whatever has been achieved militarily in the last ten years do not go waste. This will be done by an overall assessment of ground situation in Afghanistan after 2014. The second objective is to continue the training of Afghan troops; both the Afghan National Army and the Police are being rained heavily by forces from the rest of world. The last objective, the most important one, for keeping an American residue force even after 2014, is to ensure that the al Qaeda network across the Durand Line does not get revamped after 2014. As a part of this objective, the American strategy could be observed from continuing with their Drone attacks, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

If the above three are the primary objectives of the US to have a residue force, why would Obama float a “Zero Option” today, almost 18 months in advance to December 2014 deadline? Clearly, the Obama option of Zero is not linked with a long term military strategy aimed at a political objective in Afghanistan after 2014. Rather, it is a bluff, directly aimed at a short term political objective – threatening Karzai to play along with the American objectives.

And why should Obama bluff or threaten Karzai? To find an answer to this question, one has to go back to the earlier Qatar dialogue with the Taliban. While in principle Karzai had agreed to the American objective and initiative to negotiate with the Taliban, where he differed drastically was on the follow up American strategy.

While Qatar agreed to host the dialogue, Karzai’s expectation was that Afghanistan would be the primary actor in the dialogue, with the process being facilitated by the US and Qatar. Unfortunately, the way the Taliban was allowed to build an office, along with its flag and plaque offended Karzai. Naturally. Any President would. For Karzai, his deep fear is that there is a larger American-Pakistani understanding on the Qatar process with the Taliban; worse, he also fears, that instead of being a primary actor, he and his government will become a footnote, signing what has been already agreed between the Taliban, Pakistan and the US.

Karzai pulled out of the Qatar process. Obama should have negotiated the process between the Taliban and Karzai. Perhaps, there is a larger American arrogance, and also the predominant expectation from Karzai on accountability, and worse the American counter accusation of Karzai as an ungrateful partner. True, Karzai has not been able to deliver what the international community wants in Afghanistan in terms of a clean governance process, strong Army and Police, and an irrevocable democratic process with a strong constitution and judicial institutions.

While Karzai has to be held accountable on all these issues, the international community should also understand, the situation in Afghanistan is not as easy as a vending machine – that someone pops in a coin, and get a cola can in few seconds. Since that fateful agreement between Mortimer Durand and the Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893 resulting in the Durand Line, almost 120 years ago, there have been multiple dynasties, regimes, great games, internal divisions and external invasions in Afghanistan. After being destroyed systematically, a nation cannot be built in ten years. On the other hand, Karzai is neither Bismarck the Statesman, nor Garibaldi the romantic soldier – two great institutions that united Germany and Italy respectively.

The Karzai pullout from the Qatar dialogue had upset the American plan, and perhaps their larger schedule. Hence the threat of “Zero Option” by Obama now; perhaps, it is a bluff. The “Zero Option” actually should mean nothing; the American troops are outsiders, hence had to leave sooner or later. But the larger question is: will the Zero Option mean, the cutting down of aid to Afghan security forces as well? If this is a larger untold threat within the Zero Option, it would spell doom for the Afghan security forces. Neither the national security of Afghanistan, nor the regional security of South Asia and Central Asia can afford that.

There have been multiple questions within the US: why should the US fund the Afghan troops, if they are not going to be there? Will Karzai and the Afghan government provide legal provisions supporting the American troops presence after 2014? If not, why should the American troops remain in Afghanistan after 2014?

Karzai can call off the American bluff by approaching the Russians and Chinese. Especially the latter will be too happy to support Afghanistan; given the larger Chinese push into Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, Beijing will not blink twice to accept such an offer.

Karzai and Obama should understand, is the larger good. While Karzai should understand that there are no free tickets, Obama should understand Afghanistan is an independent country and not an American vassal. More importantly, a stable Afghanistan is in everyone’s interest.

If the Zeus and Hades do not reach out to each other, the Kraken and Kronos will have a field day. Today, in Afghanistan, it is Advantage Taliban. And their backers in Pakistan.

By arrangment with Rising Kashmir