NATO’s Rasmussen: Zero option for Afghanistan not preferred option, but military is planning for all eventualities

And President Barack Obama orders Pentagon to prepare for complete withdrawal.

Question:

How much would you say is this announcement a part of the game of pushing the Afghan side a bit and how much is it a part of the calculation that security agreement will really not be signed?

Answers:

Frederic Grare, Senior Associate, Director of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program

President Karzai has been delaying the signature of the BSA for so long that the US position is understandable. At the same time withdrawing for Afghanistan may have implications for regional stability and the impact would not be limited to Afghanistan. Assessing this impact is complicated. On the one side, it would make difficult for other NATO countries to maintain troops in the country. Similarly it would make donor countries more reluctant to act on their financial commitments to Afghanistan. On the other side it is unlikely that with, or without a BSA, the US will totally abandon Afghanistan. One can however look at things from another angle. The BSA will eventually slow down the erosion of the Afghan state authority, it will not reverse the situation. BSA or not, the Afghan state will have to do more with less resources.  Ultimately, whatever Pdt Obama will ultimately decide, there will be a cost to everyone.

Stephen SaidemanPaterson Chair in International Affairs and Associate Professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Co-Author of book: NATO in Afghanistan

I don’t think this is a game.  US cannot operate in Afghanistan without a deal.  It left Iraq when a deal could not be signed.  The big difference is that Iraq has income to pay for its military—Afghanistan relies on foreign assistance.  US is not willing to hand over aid without some military in the country to make sure it goes to the Afghan National Army and because it still wants to operate a bit in Afghanistan—drones and Special Operations Forces.

The agreement will probably be signed by Karzai’s successor—whoever gets elected.  Karzai’s game is most strange and confusing.

David IsbyPolitical and defense analyst, Author of books and articles on military and security

As Karzai has ended any progress towards a signed bilateral security agreement (BSA) between the United States and Afghanistan, the Obama statement is aimed at the presidential candidates and other major Afghan political figures.  Whatever Karzai’s issues, these people are, by and large, aware of how much Afghanistan has at stake with the BSA and that the 2013 Loya Jirga provided an explicit endorsement.

They are also going to be aware that, with a small US presence – 3,000 has been mentioned – the US may well cut and run in the event of even a tactical setback.  The 2013US abandonment of their Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) missions in Afghanistan in what seemed to be a reaction to the deaths of US diplomats in Libya and a Foreign Service officer in Zabul was disconcerting.  While other coalition members __ Italy in Herat and Germany in Mazar-e-Sharif, are holding firm, the Afghans are aware of how easily the Americans bolted and how little political cost there was to this back home.

Vanda Felbab-BrownSenior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution

The announcement is a combination of both a desire to signal even more clearly to President Karzai that the US is really serious about the withdrawal as well as the reality. The White House has long been saying both private and publicly that the zero option is very real and that without the BSA, no US forces will stay in Afghanistan. This was clearly articulated yesterday, but it’s hardly the first time that this has been articulated by both President Obama and other high US government officials. If there was anything new yesterday, it was President Obama’s indicated willingness to wait until after the elections for the next government. That wait may turn out long because it may not be until late in the summer or the fall when a new government is formed. President Karzai believes that the United States can never leave Afghanistan because it wants Afghanistan as a platform for strategic competition with Russia and China in the New Great Game. In fact, the opposite the strategic worldview among many top-level US officials who see the US engagement in Afghanistan as a liability. And while they don’t want to see Afghanistan fall apart after 2014 and want to bases for its drone counterterrorism operations and reach into Pakistan, they do not believe that such access should be preserved by all means. With every day, the zero option is more real than ever, even if President Karzai doesn’t realize.

Jorrit KammingaVisiting Fellow, Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael

I think it is much more about putting presure on the Afghan government, and in particular on President Karzai to make sure the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is signed as soon as possible. The United States has really lost patience with president Karzai who obviously has his own political agenda (now much more alligned with his own future role than with short term security concerns or his relationship with the US). I think the US is expecting that the BSA will be signed nontheless, either by president Karzai or by the next president, as the consequences (not only militarily but also financially and politically) of not signing it will be huge for Afghanistan. For example, no BSA will probably also mean no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO, which means no new NATO training mission beyond 2014. Lastly, I think the US is really committed to stay, to avoid the scenario of Iraq which has shown how quickly things can run out of control once you no longer have a military presence on the ground. After Iraq, another worse-case scenario will be difficult to sell to the American audience at home given all the sacrifices and investments made in Afghanistan.

Anand GopalFellow, New America Foundation

There’s a real concern among US officials that the agreement won’t be signed, so they are being forced to draw up contingency plans. If there is a game being played here, it is by Karzai, who hopes to extract as favorable concessions from the US as possible–even if that means risking the agreement itself. Karzai’s team believes that the US will sign eventually, and hope that by adopting a firm posture they can sign a deal that they believe is beneficial. Furthermore, Karzai appears to be attempting to play up his nationalist credentials and reverse the image of him as an American client, meaning that he may very well prepare the ground for a signature but leave it to his successor.

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