The zero option is a plan to leave zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan after December 2014.
The other option, which never has been named, could be called the “let’s break our promise to the American people and keep 10,000-16,000 troops in Afghanistan until at least 2024 at a cost of $80 billion or so” option. One would think the Obama administration would favor the zero option.
At a campaign rally in Boulder, Colo., on Sept. 2, 2012, President Barack Obama said: “We are bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. And I’ve set a timetable. We will have them all out of there by 2014.”
Obama was running for re-election, and he knew that every word he said would be examined closely. So I thought that when he said “we will have them all out of there by 2014,” he meant “we will have them all out of there by 2014.”
Obama now wants to keep thousands of our fighting forces, plus NATO troops, in Afghanistan in four bases, where they can carry out counterterrorism missions and “instruct” (shades of Vietnam) the Afghan army.
Which means that the Afghanistan War — already the longest in U.S. history, at just over 12 years — will stretch to an incredible 22 years, at a minimum.
That is one long war.
The war in Afghanistan already has cost us about a half-trillion dollars. More than 2,000 Americans have been killed in hostile action, and more than 19,000 have been wounded. Thousands of civilians have been killed.
Our stated mission has been accomplished. Afghanistan is our “good” war. We invaded after the attacks of Sept. 11 in order to disrupt, destroy or disperse al-Qaida terrorists and topple the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which was sheltering them.
And we did it. We did it so successfully, in fact, that in 2010, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta said the number of al-Qaida members in Afghanistan had been reduced to “50 to 100, maybe less.”
The Taliban are no longer in power in Afghanistan. A United Nations report released last month estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 members of the Taliban had been killed, captured or wounded in the past year.
The report also said that 2013 had not seen “significant gains for the Taliban, who have neither managed to seize population centers nor gain popular support.” And the Taliban have indicated some willingness to enter into peace talks and end the fighting.
So why don’t we say “mission accomplished” and bring our troops home?
True, there are things our forces still could do in Afghanistan, such as counterterrorism, which is not to be confused with counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is when you try to win the hearts and minds of the enemy. Counterterrorism is when you kill the enemy and then try to win their hearts and minds.
Our mission that killed Osama bin Laden was counterterrorism. It was highly successful, though highly dangerous. (Bin Laden was sheltering in Pakistan, a country we pay $1 billion per year to conduct its own counterterrorism. But somehow, the Pakistanis overlooked bin Laden year after year. Go figure.)
White House press secretary Jay Carney recently promised that if Afghanistan agrees to let us stay for the next decade or so, “you will not see U.S. troops patrolling mountains or cities.”
But our troops will not be sitting around playing video games. They will continue to be in harm’s way, and some will continue aggressive and dangerous missions. We will have casualties.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he would be happy to see us go, but I doubt it. The billions we lavish on him each year amount to half his government’s expenditures.
Recently, he has been biting the hand that feeds him, but that is only because he wants to get fed more. He knows that the Obama administration does not want the zero option — it does not want to leave Afghanistan — so Karzai can talk tough.
“There is mistrust between me and the Americans,” Karzai said in a speech a few weeks ago at Kabul Polytechnic University. “They don’t trust me, and I don’t trust them.”
What does Karzai want? “We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and laws and be an honest partner,” he said. And then Karzai delivered his punch line: “And bring a lot of money.” The crowd roared with laughter.
And why shouldn’t they laugh at us? We are begging to stay and prop up one of the most corrupt governments in the world. In July, Transparency International released its annual “sleaze” ratings, and once again, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia tied for the most corrupt country on earth.
Is this the neighborhood we want to stay in? And fight for? And throw more money at?
We have achieved our goals in Afghanistan. We have won. It is time for our troops to come home.
If we stay for another decade, our good war could come to a very bad end.
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist.